Digging the Crowd – The Future of Archaeological Research in the Collaborative Economy

Digital Pasts Keynote

Organised by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, DigVentures were invited to deliver a Keynote lecture at their Digital Pasts Conference in Swansea.  Here’s the text in full…

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Thank you for the kind invitation to speak today, and bring to a close what has to be one of the most vibrant and exciting archaeological conferences I’ve ever been to. From Oculus Rift to 3D printing, from generation ‘Z’ to Minecraft for heritage, I’ve been blown away by the amazing work of friends and colleagues determined to push our discipline forward – to ‘lean in’ to the future. All of which, if I’m absolutely honest, makes me wonder sometimes if I might be losing my edge!

It’s the all-encompassing, dizzying pace of change that sometimes feels so overwhelming… and when that happens, I just sit down, take a deep a breath, and ask myself: what would Douglas Adams do? Well, luckily for me and everyone else here who’s also feeling similarly challenged, In ‘The Salmon of Doubt’ he came up with a set of three rules to help explain this feeling of technological unease.

“I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:

1. Anything that’s in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and a natural part of the way the world works.

2. Anything invented between when you’re 15 and 35 is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.

3. Anything invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things.”

The Social Dimension

Now I’ll leave you all to do the maths on that one… But wanted to touch on the serious point to Douglas Adams’ three rules – and that’s the social and disruptive dimension to new technology. Never before in our history has it been easier to unite a group of people in pursuit of a common purpose. I’m talking of course about cloud-based computing, superfast networks, the web, and the fact that many of us now carry a highly advanced, networked computer in our pockets. From this infrastructure, a new social, digital and collaborative economy is emerging, creating peer-to-peer networks that have made it radically easier for communities to form and achieve anything they put their minds to. It’s nothing less than an open access, random, surprise-generating machine.

These are the defining motifs of our age – on the one hand we’ve got permissionless or disruptive innovation changing entire industries overnight, and on the other, we’ve got the social web – the ability to connect and collaborate with like-minded individuals as never before. My question, to close this keynote session and conference out, is what does this mean for archaeology? How can we work this to our advantage?

A Community Management System for Archaeology

Digital Dig TeamWe believe we’ve found at least one of the answers to these questions, and today I’ll introduce you to a web based software platform called Digital Dig Team we’ve been developing and testing over the summer with our tech partners LP Archaeology, designers Pixel Parlour, and supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

I’m head over heels with Digital Dig Team, so will try not to geek out too much as I describe it! But to summarise it very simply, we’ve designed this to be as much a process as a product. You’ve heard of content management systems for blogging like WordPress? Well this is a community management system for digging. It means we can:

  • Build an audience for the dig (through imaginative, shareable content and storytelling)
  • Generate an income for the dig (through crowdfunding)
  • And increase participation in the dig (through crowdsourcing), with records published live to the social profiles of the individuals who dug them.
  • Publish text/photos/video/3D models directly from the dig using any web-enabled device (such as a smartphone or tablet).

Wi-Fi willing, I’ll give you a demo of some of the key features in a moment, but first things first…

Who is DigVentures?

Registered OrgWe are the first exclusively community-focused registered organisation in the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists. We describe ourselves as social entrepreneurs – using creative thinking to develop solutions for social challenges. For archaeology, the first of those challenges is a growing awareness that archaeological ‘value’ must be expanded to express our social and public purpose; the second is a declining financial capacity for either private, public or third sector organisations to service these new-found ambitions. How does this play out on the ground? It’s the idea of use, existence and option values. For archaeology to realise its full public benefit it has to contribute to knowledge; it has to manage the impact of change on the past; and it has to do all this whilst explaining and involving the public as widely as possible.

I’m sure we can all agree with that. The trouble was, the recession kicked in just as these ideas really gained traction. And with 40% of the work force gone – the response of most organisations has been to retreat into themselves. You over there: you do the research. You over there: you do the resource management. And you lot, well you can do the community stuff. In the era of austerity, a more joined up approach represents mission drift to most organisations. And so archaeology continues to be practiced in its silos.

Crowdfunding & Citizen Science

Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 09.26.58Our response was to experiment with an entirely new business model for the Historic Environment. To borrow a 60’s phrase, ‘If we freed our ass, would our minds  follow?’ We were approached by the custodians of Flag Fen, an internationally significant Bronze Age wetland and unfortunately, a failing visitor attraction. The archaeology was drying out, the visitor numbers drying up, and the money to excavate had run out long since. Within a matter of months we’d:

  • Assembled a team of specialists,
  • Raised £27,000 from 250 people
  • Brought a site team of over 100 people together to complete a 3 week excavation
  • Raised visitor numbers by 30%, many of which had never been to Flag Fen before.
  • And we pulled all those results together to help create a management plan for the future running of the site.

And if this can work at Flag Fen we thought, well maybe it can work elsewhere… and that’s what we’ve been doing ever since. Building audiences and income through crowdfunding that’s then gone on to leverage four times that amount for our project partners. Of course, crowdfunding isn’t just about raising money. It’s about building deeply engaged audiences who expect to behave not as mere consumers of information, but as partners in its production. From that realisation onwards, building Digital Dig Team was just a logical progression.

So what is Digital Dig Team?

Digital Dig Team

In brief, Digital Dig Team is a place for archaeological teams to record and save all their thoughts, observations, notes, photos, videos and 3D models – pretty much anything that it’s possible to upload from a tablet/smart phone from the field. It’s a crowdfunding, crowdsourcing and data management software based on open source software – WordPress and the ARK (otherwise known as the Archaeological Recording Kit developed by LP Archaeology). It’s both a product and a process that we’ve designed to be able to be picked up and dropped on any archaeological project any where in the world.

Based on open source technology, this is basically a fully-fledged community management system for archaeology and heritage. This is represented on this site map on the left hand side in red – a content management system for archaeological data. And on the right hand side in blue – a community management system pulling together our newsroom, real-time activity stream, crowdfunding and Venturer database.

Describing this is a bit like explaining an elephant to someone who’s never seen one before… so rather than confuse the issues further, here’s a quick look at the system (still in beta) as we’ve been using it at Leiston Abbey:


And click on ‘See the Open Data’ to have a look round the public version of the recording system. For me though, the logged-in version is where the real magic happens. Driven by a powerful MySQL database, it can run complex searches of the data for the experts, whilst containing an embedded, instructional ‘MOLA Manual’ within each recording sheet for the novices. We’ve been using this to build engaged audiences with cross-platform videos and posts (through immersive storytelling); inspire those audiences to fund projects (through an integrated crowdfunding plugin); enable participation in both excavation and post-excavation for those audiences (with a crowdsourced digging team publishing data directly to individual social profiles); and derive real time insights from a globally networked specialist team (with read/write ‘expert-sourcing’ access to the database).

Immersive Storytelling

The FutureAt the outset I stated rather boldly that it’s never been easier for people to come together through the social web to achieve a common purpose – which is true – but also deserves a caveat. At it’s best the web allows us to reach outwards and connect with people and ideas far outside our usual interest networks. At its worst it means we enter an echo chamber, reinforcing our views as our preconceptions get reflected back at us, albeit this time with a hashtag. One of the issues with digital engagement in archaeology is that we keep talking to the same people in the same ways about the same things. And they’re getting older.  So what do we do? Well it’s obvious – we’re archaeologists, if we want some guidance on the future, we should look to the past…

For over 20 years, Time Team fascinated and delighted the general public, becoming staple Sunday night viewing in several million homes across the UK. When the programme was cancelled three years ago, it wasn’t because people stopped watching or lost interest in archaeology. It was cancelled because television has been changed completely by new technology and on-demand services such as Smart TV, Netflix, YouTube and mobile online viewing devices. It’s easier than ever to find what you want to watch – when, where and how you want to watch it. Television moved on, but Time Team wasn’t able to move with it; the format just simply didn’t work anymore and it was too expensive to make. But how do we then feed the proven public appetite for archaeological content?

The first step has be a crystal-clear understanding of why Time Team was so successful. Yes they were characters, and a little bit eccentric, but as this quote published in the New Scientist early on in Time Team’s run expresses so well – what really captured people’s imagination was that we were drawn in. That we got to see science in action  – to vicariously live the life of an archaeologist. So when we were at the drawing board stage of Digital Dig Team, we asked ourselves what would Time Team look like if it were invented now? That’s when we came up with the idea of ‘real time’ team – as in time team, in real time.

Why did Time Team Work? Thinking about Digital Dig Team in this way, it’s clear that we don’t just bolt some share buttons on this and call it social media, social is integrated into every aspect of Digital Dig Team. Everyone who’s involved in the project, whether they are a digital Venturer, or trench supervisor, or an off-site expert, has their own profile with any social media accounts embedded in it. Anything they find or record is linked to their profile. And anyone who has a profile, can comment on, discuss and add to the records, and we can all share any of these records with our own personal networks, all from one platform.

Disruptive Innovation

So how does this innovation fit into the history of fieldwork? A helpful way of thinking about technological innovation draws on Clayton Christensen’s analysis in ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma’. There’s a distinction to be drawn between sustaining and disruptive innovations – where sustaining innovations don’t disrupt the status quo, but merely help archaeologists do what they’ve always traditionally done – just a little better (like GPS for instance).  A disruptive innovation allows us to fundamentally re-imagine what we do – how we fund, resource, record, analyse and communicate our science. Taking this line with Digital Dig Team – it’s not the technology in itself that interests us, but it’s disruptive potential to release new and unexpected forms of value – to reposition how we both practice and theorise fieldwork.

Theory & Practice

Public & Community Archaeology ModelsSo let’s focus in now on how might work in both theory and practice, starting first with practice… In the beginning was the Site Director, recording and interpreting the site in a diary notebook whilst labourers shifted tonnes of earth. Then came the Rescue Revolution, the development of the context sheet, and the splitting of the archaeological record into a numbered sequence that could be organised into a stratigraphic matrix.

This both democratised the interpretation process across the field team, but also led to a production line model, where a physical archive could move from evaluation, to excavation, to assessment, analysis and publication, along a development-led schedule. A closed cycle, that has enabled our discipline to grow into a commercial industry embedded with environmental risk management. While this has led to an increased professionalism – I’m thinking of course about the newly Chartered Institute of Archaeologists – it has also come at the cost of our connection with the wider public – not a great look when state funding and support is said being rolled back across to pre-1930 levels.

The growth of ‘community’ or ‘public archaeology’ is a response to this trend, as organisations turn to the true source of their legitimacy – the great British public.  But this isn’t a politically neutral space, and it’s here that Digital Dig Team poses another disruptive challenge – this time to theory.  In community and public archaeology, a schism is emerging between those committed to evidence-based archaeology, and those who are sceptical, instead valuing archaeology’s contribution primarily in terms of its social impact.

Archaeology being archaeology, we’ve managed to formulate this into an entire body of theory, neatly summarised as ‘top down, bottom up’. In the former, projects can be conceived as a stage-managed collaboration between expert and public, with the expert retaining control. In the latter, the agenda is set according to the needs of communities themselves, with the expert relinquishing control into the hands of non-professionals.

The Digital and Collaborative Economy

Collaborative EconomySo how does Digital Dig Team fit into all this? Is it top down or bottom up? We think it’s neither, and I’d like to re-frame this debate in light of the profound social and technological changes globally impacting nearly every area of business and society today. From the emergence of design platforms (Quirky), crowdfunding platforms (Kickstarter), MOOCs (Future Learn) and decentralized networks (Airbnb), the idea of digitally collaborating in peer-to-peer networks to consume, learn, finance and produce is disrupting traditional ways of doing business.

The ‘top down/bottom up’ model is challenged by these new developments because the entire notion is built on dialectical, economic thinking designed to account for the allocation of scarce resources and the primacy of markets. But the new digital economy is characterised by abundance, and activity that takes place outside of the market place. Examples would be sites like Wikipedia, or open source tools like WordPress or Linux, that are provided for free on the proviso that users try and improve it in some way to give back to the community. It makes more sense to think about the new digital and collaborative economy as akin to an ecosystem – a community of plants, animals and microorganisms functioning together as a single unit with their environment.

Social Contract Archaeology

Social Contract ArchaeologyThat’s exactly what we’ve tried to build with Digital Dig Team. It’s a commitment to continuous beta phase archaeology, positioned ethically and intellectually within a ‘social contract’ with as wide a constituency of funders, stakeholders and active participants as possible. Archaeological investigation is an inherently social and collaborative activity – and by joining up the online and offline worlds so effectively, Digital Dig Team extends that collaboration into how we fund, resource, record, analyse and communicate our science. It unlocks a social process, enabling us to harvest unlimited insights from a geographically boundless team.

I would argue that this makes the narrowly defined idea of ‘community archaeology’ an anachronism – because all archaeology, to a greater or lesser extent, is practiced by a community. Rather than ‘top down or bottom up’, in the digital and collaborative economy, the most important question is whether we’re ‘closed’ or ‘open’.

I’d like to state the case for being radically open.


Digital Dig Team Pilot Partners

Interested in working with Digital Dig Team on your site? We’re hoping to roll this out to other sites in 2015/2016 and have a limited number of opportunities for pilot partners – drop us a line to find out more…

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Brendon Wilkins

Written by Brendon Wilkins

Co-founder and Projects Director at DigVentures, Brendon heads up our field and post-ex team. Aside from field archaeology, his specialisms are cheese, tea and writing animatedly about himself in the third person.

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