Sunday, July 02, 2006

Open Source Archeology

Collaboration within academic communities is an established and time honored tradition. The collaborative nature of open source communities also has its roots in academic collaboration, which is not surprising, since the free software movement began at MIT. In academic communities and open source communities, people collaborate and build on the ideas of others, ideas are evaluated based on their merits as assessed in peer reviews, and research or code is published in great detail allowing others to examine the study methodology or code.

With these similarities, it is not surprising to see sciences, like archeology, embracing open source software. Currently quite a bit of the push toward using open source in archeology is coming from Italy. The IOSA Project (Internet and Open Source Archeology Project) headquartered in Genoa, Italy has been working since 2004 toward the following goals:

  1. a greater and better use of computers in archaeological research, also through better knowledge and consciousness;

  2. the spreading of open source not just as software, but as a philosophy too, which is similar to the scientific research model, and therefore is suitable to it;

  3. the education to the use of open source software, both generic software and scientific software;

  4. to promote open standards that are thought for being exchanged on the web, which represents a good way for sharing and publication of research results, at lower cost than traditional methods;

  5. to give students the opportunity to compare between open source software and proprietary software they use everyday, on ready-to-use computers, with generic and scientific software installed;

  6. to start archaeological research projects in which open source software and philosophy are part of the original design and not afterwards applied to it;

  7. to collect archaeologists who are interested in the use of free/libre open source software, through a web site that should work as a portal and discussion forum. (

Open source software makes quite a bit of sense for the sciences and particularly for archeology. With archeology, the process of gathering data destroys the original site, so precise record keeping must be preserved along with the ability for a new generation of archaeologists to access the data many years later. For example, the data from a site being analyzed today in a remote location in South America might be invaluable for archaeologists studying a similar site 50 years from now. If the data is electronic and easily accessible with open formats using open source software, we know that the data can be retrieved and analyzed; however, with proprietary formats and software, the company who created the software may or may not be around in 50 years.

I suspect that academic communities will become more comfortable with open source software over time. It will be interesting to see how the archaeological community and other scientific communities embrace open source software over the next few years as open source software continues to be used in more and more critical solutions.

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