A man using laser scanning equipment at Stonehenge.
Heritage becomes digital. Research develops the systems and services we need to make best use of that information. Laser scanning at Stonehenge. © Historic England, James O. Davies, Image reference DP136899
Heritage becomes digital. Research develops the systems and services we need to make best use of that information. Laser scanning at Stonehenge. © Historic England, James O. Davies, Image reference DP136899

Research Theme #Inform

In a world of big data and records born digitally, we need to manage information to manage the historic environment. Our digital humanities research includes technologies, systems and services, and developing the standards that underpin these. We will improve access to datasets, the analysis of information, and its communication, preservation, use and reuse.

We have identified two main strands of research on this theme:

Information systems and services

Records are the body of knowledge for the heritage sector. Where sites have been excavated, demolished, or lost through other means, records may be the only evidence of the past. Historically, the development of multiple overlapping recording systems, incompatible standards and formats, under-investment in information systems and skills in the sector, have made it difficult to share that evidence. Emerging technologies offer the opportunity to develop services that will make the sectors information more accessible and inspiring, better suited to the effective management and protection of sites, and a more reliable resource for research.

Our flagship activity, designed with partners to simplify and improve public access and professional use, is the Heritage Information Access Simplified strategy (HIAS) . In addition, we contribute to and support initiatives to improve the quality of specialist heritage information management through the Forum on Information Standards in Heritage (FISH). We have supported work on the trans-national definition of the Seven Grand Challenges for Digital Archaeology for the European Archaeologiae Consilium (EAC).

Research will have impact if it helps us to understand who uses heritage information, how they make use of it and what they need from information services. It could apply new technological developments to the management and dissemination of heritage information; or develop and apply existing data standards to facilitate management, dissemination and reuse as digital technologies change. It needs to build a commitment to sector-wide sharing, long-term preservation and reuse of information and data.

Research questions that will help our mission include:

  • What sort of information will be most useful to those who plan and take decisions affecting the historic environment?
  • How can we encourage the sharing, linking and interoperability of historic environment data and information, particularly information derived from the commercial sector?
  • How can we ensure the consistent development, application and enforcement of existing technical information and data standards and their promotion to others?
  • What is the most beneficial way of providing services for the public and heritage professionals to access and use heritage information?
  • How can we harness the enthusiasm of the general public to help update and improve the record of the nation’s heritage through developments such as crowdsourcing?

Find out more about the Heritage Information Access Simplified

See our advice on information management and data standards

New narratives from 'big data'

The commercial heritage sector (heritage consultancies and archaeological practices etc.) are the largest generators on new information on the historic environment, generally through investigations undertaken to prepare a planning application or mitigate its impact. The scale of this development-led fieldwork now has the potential to radically change our understanding of the past. It has been estimated, for example, that over 75,000 archaeological interventions, ranging from trial trenching to full-scale excavation, have taken place since developers were first required to fund recording work in 1990.

Arguably, the full research potential of developer-funded archaeological recording work can be fulfilled only when its results are incorporated into larger-scale syntheses of the outcomes of multiple excavations and surveys and resultant new narratives are presented back to the public. While planning policy requires developers to bear the reasonable costs of the analysis and publication of the archaeological work they commission, retrospective synthetic studies require other sources of funding. In the last ten years or so, a number of synthetic studies have begun to draw together this enormous body of archaeological investigation and the initial results are compelling. But far more remains to be done.

Research will have impact if it draws together and interrogates ‘big data’ to create new historical narratives for large areas, for types of archaeological site and for whole historical periods. It will allow us to pose a new and more refined set of research questions for the future. It will allow us to understand the strengths and weaknesses of current fieldwork and analytical methodologies and it will provide better information to support the land-use planning and statutory designation processes.

Research questions which will help our mission include:

  • Which areas, types of site and historical periods would most benefit from the synthesis of commercially derived ‘big data’?
  • What new narratives can we generate from synthesis?
  • What can we learn about current fieldwork and analytical approaches and how can they be improved?
  • What can synthesis tell us that will improve protection through the planning and statutory listing systems?
  • How can we best engage the public in the creation of new historical narratives from commercially generated information?
  • How can we secure maximum public value from commercially generated information?

Collaborate with us

If you'd like to collaborate with us on this theme please use the contact address below to get in touch.