Widening access to Linked Ancient World Data

1. Abstract


Linked Data technologies connect disparate open datasets, revealing intersections between them, and could therefore be extremely powerful for Humanities research. There is much discussion among the Digital Humanities community about the production of such resources, but:

  1. How are they experienced by end users?
  2. How might they be made more accessible to a wider public?

My paper aims to address these questions, based on findings from recent user research. I begin by outlining my study in relation to existing research, before discussing my findings (1). I end by summarising and providing initial recommendations (2), highlighting that data openness and accuracy do not guarantee accessibility without human intervention.

Background: Linked Data and user research

Linked Data has the potential to transform Humanities research by making new connections, visualising relationships, and facilitating access to a broader range of materials. Previous research has, however, identified a number of barriers to its production in a Humanities context, including the amount of training required, lack of awareness of its benefits, and unwillingness to depart from familiar tabular formats (Barbera, 2013, pp. 96, 98; Isaksen, 2011, pp. 153–154; van Hooland & Verborgh, 2014, p. 51).

I aim to identify and address barriers to Linked Data use, rendering supposedly ‘open’ data resources unusable outside a relatively niche segment of the research community. Although initiatives such as Pelagios[1] emphasise the importance of a user-centred approach to development (Simon, Barker, Isaksen, & de Soto Cañamares, 2015, pp. 54–56), in general there is less existing research on Linked Data use, as opposed to production. One exception (Angelis et al., 2015) studied use of the Europeana platform; findings included identifying the need for human-curated content as a ‘way in’ to the data.

Limiting my study to researchers of the Ancient World, a microcosm of the Humanities, I set out to identify which Linked Data resources are used most frequently, explore users’ experiences of these resources, and recommend how they might attract a wider audience.

Methodology: survey and interviews

To obtain a breadth of views and in-depth understanding of specific cases, the study included a survey and interviews. Based on the assumption that few Ancient World researchers have used Linked Data, but many could benefit from it, I aimed the survey at all Ancient World researchers who use digital tools and resources, intending to apply more generic findings to Linked Data specifically.

212 participants responded, who were predominantly:

There were slightly more women than men, with a small proportion who preferred not to provide their gender, or to self-describe. I selected an interview sample of 17, ensuring differing levels of technical experience, while being broadly demographically representative of the survey population. The combined survey and interview results comprise a cross-section of views relating to Linked Ancient World Data at the present time.

Findings: curation and documentation

The 23% of participants who had knowingly used Linked Data were asked about the tool or resource with which they are most familiar. Those discussed most often were Pleiades[2], Pelagios and Papyri.info[3]. Features of these resources that participants particularly appreciated included:

Such features were also of interest to Ancient World researchers more generally. Even those with limited technical experience showed an interest in integrating multiple resources and incorporating advanced query options to improve efficiency of discovery. Linked Data resources therefore clearly have a broad potential appeal.

User experience comments on Pleiades, Pelagios and Papyri.info were largely positive, for example:

"I found it user-friendly and intuitive." [PART007, Survey] – on Pelagios

However, some participants identified potential barriers:

Subsequent interview discussions indicated that, although clear documentation was appreciated, less technically experienced participants were unlikely to consult it at all due to an assumption that it would be too complex to understand. Participants’ suggestions for resolving the above barriers included:

Both these suggestions harness human skills rather than relying solely on richness of data.

Conclusions: the human factor

Findings from this study illustrate the importance of human intervention to ensure that Linked Open Data is usable and accessible by a wider public, rather than leaving the data to speak for itself. Specific recommendations include:

Although any updates to a digital tool or resource require an investment of time and funds, the above actions would be less costly than redesigning a user interface and could potentially be as effective in broadening the potential audience. While the focus of this study was Linked Data, the findings should be viewed in the context of participants’ wider digital experiences; as such, these recommendations could equally apply to resources that employ a different technological approach.

This work forms part of a wider PhD study, aiming to identify where Linked Data might be most effectively integrated with Ancient World research methodologies. The resulting recommendations should enable researchers with varying levels of technical skill to unlock its full potential.


Angelis, S., Benardou, A., Chatzidiakou, N., Constantopoulos, P., Dallas, C., Dunning, A., … Waterman, K. (2015). Europeana Cloud Deliverable 1.3 User Requirements Analysis and Case Studies Report. Content Strategy Report. Retrieved from Europeana website: http://pro.europeana.eu/files/Europeana_Professional/Projects/Project_list/Europeana_Cloud/Deliverables/D1.3%20D1.6%20User%20Requirements%20Analysis%20and%20Case%20Studies%20Report%20Content%20Strategy%20Report.pdf

Barbera, M. (2013). Linked (open) data at web scale: Research, social and engineering challenges in the digital humanities. JLIS.It, 4(1), 91–101.

Isaksen, L. (2011). Archaeology and the semantic web (University of Southampton). Retrieved from http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/206421

Simon, R., Barker, E., Isaksen, L., & de Soto Cañamares, P. (2015). Linking Early Geospatial Documents, One Place at a Time: Annotation of Geographic Documents with Recogito. E-Perimetron, 10(2), 49–59.

van Hooland, S., & Verborgh, R. (2014). Linked data for libraries, archives and museums: How to clean, link and publish your metadata. London: Facet Publishing.

[1] https://pelagios.org/

[2] https://pleiades.stoa.org/

[3] http://papyri.info/

Sarah Middle (sarah.middle@open.ac.uk), Open University, United Kingdom

Theme: Lux by Bootswatch.