Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Pelagios phase 2: the last post - for now

(To get a “live action” summary of what Pelagios is all about, watch the Elton and Leif double-act at the recent Digital Humanities 2012 conference in Hamburg.)

Pelagios phase 1 (Feb – Oct 2011) had established the concept that you can link online stuff about the ancient world by using a lightweight framework, based on the concept of place (a Pleiades URI) and a standard ontology (Open Annotation Collaboration). Its guiding principles have been Openness and Decentralization—we store no data ourselves centrally but rather enable connections between different datasets to be made (based on common references to places). Building on this “bottom-up” infrastructure, Pelagios phase 2 (Nov 2011 – Jul 2012) has produced four outcomes:
1.     an indexing service that allows any ancient world scholar working in the digital medium to make their data discoverable;
2.     an API (an interface allowing computers to communicate with each other) that enables other users and data-providers to discover relevant data and do interesting things with them;
3.     a suite of visualization services including widgets that empowers any interested party to find out more about the ancient world—through literature, archaeological finds, visual imagery, maps, etc.
4.     the Pelagios “cookbook”, into which the community’s wisdom and experience has been poured and distilled.

The Pelagios API has provided at least three quick wins. It helps provide Context for those hosting data online, by allowing you to obtain links to online material that may be relevant to your own. It facilitates Discovery of your data, so that any web-user can find your resources by following links on other partners’ sites. Finally it allows Reuse by providing machine-readable representations (JSON, RDF) by means of which you can mash-up the data you find in ways you want.
The Pelagios API in action

The suite of visualization tools that we’ve been developing illustrates just some ways the API can be used: so, we have created widgets that can be embedded on partners’ websites that enable place searches, a “heat map” that shows annotations within the Pelagios cloud on a map by virtue of their density, and the Graph Explorer, which allows users to search for connections between places in documents or find out about the documents that reference a particular place. Perhaps even more exciting is to see what partners are making of the API themselves. So, for example, Nick Rabinowitz and Sebastian Heath have developed a JavaScript library for Ancient World Linked Data, “awld.js”, which adds functionality to a website by providing a pop-up preview of Web links to Pelagios references for a place, simply by virtue of you passing your browser over the place-name.

The number of partners has grown appreciably. In addition to the “originals” from phase 1 (Pleiades, Arachne, GAP,, Perseus Digital Library, SPQR), Pelagios2 introduced CLAROS, Open Context and Ure Museum at the outset, and have since been joined by the following: the British Museum, Fasti Online, Inscriptions of Israel / Palestine, Meketre, OCRE, ORACC,, Ports Antiques and Regnum Francorum Online. It is exciting to note that some of these new partners, such as ORACC—or, to give it its full title, the Open Richly Annotated Cuneiform Corpus—extend the Pelagios family into new geographical areas (i.e. the Near East and Egpyt). And this is important not only for challenging the still dominant “eurocentric” vision of antiquity but also because it more accurately reflects the interconnected nature of the ancient world. By doing so, it opens up a whole new range of potentially exciting linkages.

This wouldn’t be nearly such an exciting, or fun, project if it didn’t throw up the odd occasional difficulty. These have tended to focus on the process of data alignment, which is not surprising since mapping your place references to Pleiades is the hardest part. On the one hand, Aggregating Data is inevitably challenging since no two datasets are the same, and the process has thrown up questions of how to label appropriately (references, data containing the reference), what kind of dataset partitions to have (no subsets vs. multiple levels of hierarchy), and how to keep Pelagios up-to-date of changes you may make to the annotations. On the other hand, we have found that the process of alignment has obliged partners to think about how they are Conceptualizing Data in the first place: i.e. how they are expressing the relation between data and place, such as find-spot vs. origin, uncertain references (probably made in, from the vicinity of), different levels of granularity or specificity (South Italy, Greek Islands, etc.). Because computers are unable to make the “semantic leap”, as humans we have to be a lot clearer about what it is we think we’re doing. To find out about how the partners tackled some of these issues, you can browse through the blog (summarised here in our cookbook) and join the pelagios-group mailing list, where you can also share your experiences.

Pelagios has also been very concerned that all our visible outcomes—the suite of visualizations especially—make sense to everyone. Accordingly, we have been conducting robust and iterative user-testing throughout development, keeping in mind the “Child of 10” standard: for the results of this phase 2 testing, see here and here (and for phase 1, here). But we can still do much better. Part of this perhaps might be better managing the expectations of our home constituency (ancient world scholars), whose excitement at the prospect of being able to gather all different kinds of information about antiquity suggests to them that we’re hosting it—i.e. that we’re a kind of Ancient Wikipedia. Remember: Pelagios is expressly not “one ring to rule them all”, but a means of facilitating connections. Getting out the message that this is in fact a community to which they can also contribute will continue to be central to our mission. Still, this enthusiasm shows that there’s a huge appetite for drawing on, and contributing to, content that is free, open and linkable to across the web.
Pelagios: not “one ring to rule them all”

Pelagios continues to go from strength to strength. We’re currently in negotiation with another potential partner, which would increase our geographic scope considerably—all the way to ancient China! There has also been discussion about extending the Pelagios “keep it simple”/ “bottom-up” approach to other kinds of common references, such as time periods or people’s names. But to fulfil any of these possibilities will require as much input from our partners and others as Pelagios has been blessed to receive—and we are extremely grateful for everybody’s support!

Leif has much more to say about these aspects in a forthcoming post. Personally speaking, now that we have a working bottom-up infrastructure in place, I would like to see web-users, ordinary non-technical browsers like me, working with the data between which Pelagios enables you to draw connections. For the study of the ancient world—what we in the trade call “Classics” or “Classical Civilization”— is an interdisciplinary subject that encompasses literary texts, material culture, visual artefacts and conceptual ways of thinking. The digital environment affords possibilities for mashing-up and exploring all these different kinds of data in ways that before were simply not imaginable but which are the essence of our subject. With its partners, Pelagios is helping to lay the foundations for the study of the ancient world in the twenty first century.

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