Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Pelagios: Future Directions and Lessons Learned

Having come such a long way in a short time (it's hard to believe that the first phase of Pelagios began only last year), crystal ball-gazing is surprisingly challenging. On top of this, the UK and international funding landscape is rapidly changing, which may affect the kinds of research and development we can do in future. Nevertheless it is possible to identify some likely future directions of travel, as well clarify those services that we expect to sustain.


Pelagios was deliberately developed as a decentralised community of practice to minimise sustainability issues between development cycles. All annotations are hosted by the data partners themselves, so while it is possible for them to disappear individually there is no single point of failure. There is also a natural symmetry to this - the most likely reason for the annotations to disappear is if the resource they annotate goes offline, in which case the annotations would no longer point to anything anyway. The two major pieces of infrastructure we use - Pleiades and Open Annotation - have long term funding, but it is also worth noting that even were these services to disappear there would still be value in Pelagios annotations. They will create a network of connectivity between data partners, even if the the place URIs cannot be directly resolved.

The only components which require direct maintenance from the Pelagios community are the APIs and visualisation interfaces. These are used by some of our partners and so it would be unhelpful for them to be shut down. For that reason we have directed some of our funding towards a year's hosting, with the intention that it will tide us over until the next funding cycle. In case that should fail to materialise not all is lost, however. Our entire API and visualisation codebase is hosted on github and and can be installed anywhere else instead (several project partners have informally offered assistance in such an eventuality). This is entirely in the spirit of Pelagios - it is not our intention that the current API be the central access point, but that anyone should be able to set up APIs harvesting and serving data relevant to the needs of their own community. As the data is hosted independently there is no 'lock-in' or dependency on a single host.

Future Directions

There are many directions in which Pelagios can be taken and we are actively exploring several of them. Two forms of data we would like to include more of are maps and geographic writings. Although extant spatial documents from Antiquity are relatively scarce, they are extremely rich in content (sometimes with thousands of toponyms) and the associations between them are still far from clear. By digitally annotating geographical texts and images such as Ptolemy's Geography, the roman itineraries, the Peutinger Table, Strabo, Pliny, Pomponius Mela, and the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, we would be able to explore the relationships between them in a far more powerful way. We could see at a glance the levels of coverage, as well as important omissions, or add contextual overlays to the documents themselves.

A second direction is to apply the lessons learned in Pelagios to other regions and periods of history. We are already in discussions about identifying gazetteers for late Antiquity and ancient and medieval China. The power of Pelagios is that it is equally applicable to any tie and place - it only requires that stable URI gazetteer be available. At a yet greater level of abstraction, the Pelagios framework can also be adapted to other conceptual entities, such as people, periods or canonical citations. Matteo Romanello is currently doing some very exciting work in the latter case which we have been following with interest. There is also a long running community discussion about creating a 'temporal' gazetteer' of historical periods, although it'srelationship to both place and individual assertions by scholars makes this a challenging topic.

However the space which seems to offer most promise currently is references to people. URI authority files such as VIAF already list a large number of well-known people from Antiquity. Likewise there are forthcoming digital prosopographies that could potentially offer stable URIs for less renowned citizens of Antiquity. By establishing a common service for discovering these URIs the stage would be set to annotate resources with references to people. This is not merely of interest to those researching ancient social networks. Because life spans are relatively short (historically speaking), references to people (and especially multiple people) are a powerful way of identifying the temporal salience of a resource, in addition to its spatial relevance. That can be extremely helpful when filtering through the thousands of annotations associated with a city like Rome or Athens!

These are just some of the ideas we hope to follow up on imminently or over time. We hope you find them as exciting as we do, and if you have an idea of how Pelagios could help facilitate your own work then do get in touch - we'd be delighted to hear about it.

Lessons Learned

And what have we learned along the way? Three key lessons stand out:

  1. Semantically formalizing references is a quicker win than semantically formalizing relationships. Much 'Semantic Web' research in the past has focussed on property and ontology-driven work that permits complex inferencing but is difficult to scale and has little value if the entities referred to are not already normalized. At this stage in the development of the Linked Data Web it may be best to focus on identifying common concepts (places, people, citations, taxonomies - anything you can 'point to'), which enhances discovery and lays the groundwork for the harder task of deriving and aligning ontologies from legacy data.
  2. The Web is designed to facilitate Openness and Decentralization. It doesn't necessarily follow that one ought to act in the spirit of these principles, but if you don't then you will be going against the grain of the technology. Because they are fundamental to Pelagios's goal (making independent ancient world resources easily and mutually discoverable), Web technologies have served us extremely well with few of the technical headaches that come from trying to keep things locked down or centralize everything in an 'ultimate solution'.
  3. Find your place in the ecosystem. Trying to do everything not only limits your horizons but is antithetical to the infinitely expansive nature of the humanities. Pelagios has proved successful by playing a small and tightly defined role in a community of partners who make equally vital contributions of various natures. This has allowed us to avoid mission creep and benefit from the excellence of our colleagues while giving back something in return. It has also allowed us to fully appreciate just how gracious, vibrant and giving the 'digital ancient world' community currently is. Continuing to foster a similar culture across the digital humanities will be fundamental to its success.
We'll look forward to learning further lessons in later phases of Pelagios, but for now it remains to thank the JISC Discovery Programme, all of our partners, and of course people like you, whose interest and support remains the lifeblood of the project. We'll continue to post updates in the coming months and if you have data you'd like to link to Pelagios then do get in touch!

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