Work in progress...

by Cornel  

The lack of new posts over the past few days is not due to forgetfulness or a diminishing interest in updating the blog. I've just been spending every single minute of my free time working on PalaeoArchives, an online database of Romanian Middle Palaeolithic sites that I first presented on at the Paleoanthropology Society meeting in Memphis (2012). While functional at the moment, the database was supposed to be ready (in terms of both content and infrastructure) quite some time ago, but I never got a chance to really work on it until now. I'm extremely excited about all the new features that I'm implementing, and I'm really hoping to have the final version done by October. I won't rush things, of course, but I just have a lot of momentum, so I think it's doable.

So what are all these new and exciting features? Well, the collaboration component, for one. I was originally going to implement a pretty simple system, but things have changed. I thought long and hard about how to best implement a 100% open, truly collaborative online archaeological database without sacrificing the reliability and accuracy of the data. One of the biggest challenges is to provide clear and meaningful benefits for users that take responsibility for the content (editing or managing it), and to implement the collaborative framework in such a way that the database can be maintained with minimal centralized oversight. But I think I've got it nailed! I will spare you the details at this point, but here's a sneak peak: in the current working version users can discuss essentially all of the objects that make up the content, from bibliography entries to site descriptions, and the main components are all versioned (users can view older versions and evaluate the differences). The overall content is managed within a three-tier access system, and all core updates have to be approved by all listed content managers (assigned on a per-site basis), although I allowed for branching of core information in case there is major disagreement.

Another exciting feature are the user loadable (and shareable!) thematic maps. I've completely changed the mapping component, "renouncing" the Google API in favour of OpenLayers. The Google layers are all still there, but now you'll be able to see a range of other maps as overlays, including geologic and topo maps (and, if all works well, a map with the location of known raw material sources from an external database). More than that, users will be able to add their own overlays, either permanently (storing them on the server for others to see as well) or temporarily. The automatically generated overlay with site locations will be completely customizable with the aid of filters, and users will be able to download these custom overlays as KML files.

Finally, the content as well as the site itself will be translatable to other languages. Users will be able to select the display language of each object (e.g. news items, summaries of biblio entries, etc), if translations exist, or they will be able to submit translations of a particular piece of content if they so desire. This will allow content managers (people who have excavated, or are excavating the sites) to enter or update the information in whatever language they feel is best.

There are many other changes, some quite major (restructuring of the content into more discrete and meaningful categories), others not so much (changes to the look and feel). Given the availability of a new filtering system and a new, more meaningful and flexible data structure, I've decided that instead of entering only well-documented sites, I will enter all known or suspected Romanian Middle Palaeolithic sites into the database, and leave the door wide open for others to enter Lower or Upper Palaeolithic sites as well - heck, even later sites if they so desire.

All these features may sound a bit of an overkill. In a sense there is a bit of overengineering here, since many of the new features go well beyond the original scope of the project. However, I plan on releasing the PaleoArchives platform as open source software, so that other projects may benefit from it, and I think all the new features will make it quite appealing and will therefore ensure its longevity.

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