Data Integration without Taxation: A Revolutionary Approach to Collaboration

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By: Sandra R. Schloen, OCHRE Data Service, University of Chicago

Screen Shot 2013-12-12 at 10.15.47 AMThe rallying cry for project collaboration resounds from every corner. Collaborative research grants earn their own category within major funding agencies. New centers are springing up, like the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society at the University of Chicago (http://neubauercollegium.uchicago.edu), designed to facilitate integrative research that transcends traditional boundaries. Collaboration-enabling features have worked their way into software tools commonly used in academia. And with the mass appeal of technology making everyone an expert, research projects have been able to amass quantities of data like never before. Maybe it’s not “big data” but it’s bigger and better than ever, and even bigger if we share, giving rise to the hope of better research. Isn’t that, after all, the point?

But just ask the smart kid in class forced to do a group project. It is often easier, more expedient, more rewarding, to go it alone, and collaborative efforts often fall short of the glory and the dream due, in part, to the costs of collaboration. There is often a perceived penalty to be paid by the individual for the sake of the group. Take, for example, the sense that one will have to surrender control of one’s project data for the common good. Consider too the concessions one must inevitably make so that a project’s data will conform to some expected, agreed-upon standard. Then there’s the condominium factor (with the associated fee) – that of having some external body dictating design features and subsuming personal choices within the collective framework. Such is the participation tax levied on the team, and it often takes its toll.

Relatively new on the archaeological scene, and involving a number of ASOR members, is an extensive collaborative effort known as CRANE: Computational Research on the Ancient Near East (http://www.crane.utoronto.ca). CRANE is an international, multidisciplinary, research initiative, generously supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada and headquartered at the University of Toronto under the leadership of Timothy Harrison (current ASOR President), with coast-to-coast Canadian compatriots participating (Michael Chazan, University of Toronto; Lisa Cooper, University of British Columbia; Catherine D’Andrea, Simon Fraser University; Michel Fortin, Laval University). South of the border, but engaged on the same side as the Canadians, are David Schloen (University of Chicago) and Andrew Vaughn (Executive Director of ASOR) offering both archaeological and intellectual diversity. Several Europeans were marshalled to join the unit including Graham Philip of Durham University and representatives of the Catholic University of Leuven, the University of Freiburg, and Tübingen University. Special forces were conscripted with highly-specialized skill sets including Eugene Fiume (University of Toronto), computer scientist and visualization expert; John Christiansen (Argonne National Laboratory) whose expertise in simulation is worthy of international war games; and Sturt Manning (Cornell University), whose work in dendrochronology threatens to upset the historical timeline of the ancient Near East. The OCHRE Data Service at the University of Chicago (http://ochre.uchicago.edu) is the technological command center under lead research database specialist Miller Prosser.

Staff and students at the inaugural CRANE Workshop, Toronto, Canada; March 22, 2013 (left-to-right: Kevin Fisher, Dominique Langis-Barsetti, Steven Edwards, Stephen Batiuk, Darren Joblonkay, Miller Prosser)

Staff and students at the inaugural CRANE Workshop, Toronto, Canada; March 22, 2013
(left-to-right: Kevin Fisher, Dominique Langis-Barsetti, Steven Edwards, Stephen Batiuk, Darren Joblonkay, Miller Prosser)

CRANE aims to integrate digital data from several archaeological projects representing sites clustered geographically in southeast Turkey and northwest Syria including Tell Acharneh (Fortin, Cooper), the Homs Regional Project (Philip), Tell Tayinat (Harrison), and Zincirli Höyük (Schloen). Each of these sites uses its own recording system born from its own research tradition. CRANE also plans to integrate with the stratigraphic and material culture record the detailed ceramic data (Cooper), chronometic analysis (Manning), and paleoenvironmental factors (D’Andrea) to develop a core cultural and paleoenviron-mental sequence for these sites. The analytical possibilities provided by such a comprehensive collection of data is expected to help achieve a deepened understanding of the foundational societal and cultural developments in the ancient Near East that have shaped the cultures and landscapes of the present. The CRANE team has turned to technology for reinforcement, arming themselves with the unique Online Cultural and Historical Research Environment (OCHRE) in a strategic attempt to defy the teamwork tax and achieve meaningful data integration in support of their collaborative research objectives.

Here we salute the power of the OCHRE data model. Like the foot soldiers of the rank and file, at its most basic level all data is the same and, as a result, it is traditionally arrayed in formation to create well, ranks and files, also known as tables. But not so, in OCHRE. To the mothers and wives of those soldiers, each one is different, special, unique. Capitalizing on the same-ness, but embracing the distinctions, not smoothing them over or brushing them off like second-class citizens, is what makes OCHRE itself unique and different. Within OCHRE each project datum regardless of what it represents – a burnished potsherd, an ashy debris layer, a carved and polished astragalus, a radio-carbon sample, a Neolithic site, a bibliographic reference, a high-resolution photograph – can be conceptualized as a uniquely identified item that shares common characteristics with other data.

CRANE Logo

CRANE Logo

Each can be described with properties, linked through relationships with other items, tracked by events, and explained via notes. But at the same time, each item remains distinct. There are no tables of data at OCHRE’s core – just items.Therein lies the revolution. These items can be collected into tables, organized hierarchically like a chain of command, selected based on certain qualities for special analytical purposes, and manipulated either en masse or individually, transcending traditional organizational boundaries. Hierarchical frameworks used as alternatives to tables can be user-defined and proliferated, freeing data from typically hard-coded boundaries of space and time.

With an arsenal of technical tools available to projects within an environment where items are managed as individual units, integration becomes a natural outcome where everyone is a victor. Conformity is not an issue since differences are captured intentionally and explicitly through user-defined data structures. There is no loss of control, since each item remains at the command of the project to which it belongs and can be tagged as private or public, editable or read-only, as needed. This is data representation without taxation; collaboration without a cost. This is a win for the scholar whose data is comprehensively elaborated. This is a win for the team since the units can be reassembled in a myriad of configurations. Queries, comparisons, statistics, diagrams, and simulations become possible across project boundaries like never before.

The committed team of CRANE collaborators has set out to prove these ideas, united in purpose around a revolutionary database designed at its core to facilitate data integration. Not to the strong is the battle, not to the swift is the race, and having completed a satisfying first year the CRANE project team has four more years in which to attain their ambitious goals. Forward march!

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