Thursday, 23 May 2013

Archaeological social networking – from the Tyneside to Africa

Why is it that sometimes there is absolutely nothing happening, but then there are a couple of days when everything is happening? Last Saturday morning I did not only take students to the Museum of Classical Archaeology, but also missed a social networking workshop in the McDonald Institute. However, I managed to get to the Institute just in time for the free lunch to face the programme I missed. Luckily, I have been following the Personal Histories project, so at least one talk was on a familiar subject that was not so horrible to miss. In addition, a short section of the Tony Robinson talk I could not attend was played as the first thing after lunch – although it was cut short by the Archers theme tune belting from one iPad in the front row.

I was unfortunate to miss the presentation/comments by the outreach officer of the Cambridge Archaeological Unit and the similar talk by a young woman from the Suffolk County Council. Outreach work nowadays involves blogging, tweeting and Facebook pages. Much of the funding comes from the developers and in the museum frameworks the social media output has to be presented as relevant.

A project worker from the Newcastle University has been studying the involvement with social media of different museum audiences in the Tyne and Wear area, who basically consider Facebook pages as one kind of marketing. To her surprise most of the interaction happens with the people who live locally in the north-east – not with the interested people from farther away. She also found that those visiting a local Roman fort, related to the Hadrian’s Wall, were also interested and involved with the archaeological subject matter, not only visiting the museum as ‘entertainment’. It was a revelation to me how low proportion of the people visiting these museums is from outside the area. The Baltic is not among these council-led museums, so some of the north-eastern museums have slightly more nationwide standing.

Arbeia Roman fort (Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums)

One of the refreshing features of this workshop was that there was also an active participation from the Anthropology. The organiser Matt Davis is collaborating with professor Moore and he used to be the Assistant Director of the British School in Eastern Africa, so this partly explains. His presentation that made clear how important innovation mobile phone is in Africa and how much innovation is also happening in Africa crating different services was a revelation. He has now a group of local assistants who map local archaeology and heritage with GPS and use web interfaces. They have just realised that actually they could probably do all the data collection with the smartphones the assistants have started to buy.

That is definitely the future – as long as there is network coverage. On my way by train to Cambridge I lost the contact and could not read the Guardian online. Then I heard in the Watchdog programme that my network provider has been decomissioning mobile phone masts in the country side - thanks! However, in Kenya, in a country where getting a landline phone is painfully laborious, the masts are popping up everywhere and the assistants get their payments by a text message.

Another issue is, if the Google services stay free. Clearly, the firm that ‘does no evil’ is moving towards a service model that requires payment. The free Google books are nowadays rarer, but the advertisements for buying different books from the Google Play are very visible. The participant from the ADS (Archaeology Data Service) was suggesting that the free base mapping may soon be history after a certain number of free searches...

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