I’m falling behind on my reading of RSS feeds, so the news that the Portable Antiquities Scheme has put some of its data on Swivel is new to me, even though the post is a week old. Swivel seems to be a graphing website. People upload data and then you can draw your own graphs from it.
At the moment some of the graphs are a bit limiting. There’s not a lot you can do with the number of coins by period for example. I think it does show potential for the longer term. For instance with the PAS database being open it should be possible to mash it with other data and produce some really useful or bizarre results. For instance is archaeology a middle class pursuit? The PAS has some findspot data, so you could plot number of finds in a county against number of trendy wine bars in a county and see if there’s a correlation. You can’t do that with Swivel yet, but it looks like it might be possible in a few years time. Perhaps a more useful study would plot PAS find numbers in with a series of socio-economic indicators like crime reports, schools performance etc which might help heritage workers see where they are succeeding and where they are not.
Despite that, even though I think it’s exciting I still don’t know what I’m getting excited about. I remember the first mobile phones coming out in the eighties. Who would have predicted then that the big selling point about them would have been cameras or text? Who then predicted what personal communication would mean for the decline in public phones? The way we think about electronic communication today is qualitatively different to the way we thought about it in the past. I think this kind of openness with data could produce something similar. At the moment I’m still thinking about data in a conventional way. I suspect that will its availability people only a little more visionary than me will come up with new ways in thinking about information, and take that view for granted like we take cameraphones for granted today.
In the longer term I could be worried about these young upstarts who’ll be thinking in a different way and make me something of a dinosaur. In the shorter term I’ll seriously consider putting my data online at Swivel after I’ve finished my thesis and contribute to the process.