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Eboracum Here we Come: HER Forum Talks the Talk in York
HER Forum Winter Meeting, 10th December 2013, King’s Manor, University of York 

(Post presentation questions and comments -in italicised type following each abstract - based on notes taken at the meeting).

View from the Chair: Chris Webster (Somerset County Council)

For the first time in several years, the HER Forum meeting ventured away from Birmingham. Numbers were slightly down but the number of new faces suggested that this was a good move from the point of view of people who find Birmingham difficult to access. The morning heard presentations on the Seneschal project, which is developing a single online source for terminology, and on the results of a project to identify suitable long-term repositories for churchyard surveys. There were also updates on the discussion on Benchmarks and Audits held earlier this year, and on the latest work on the Heritage Gateway. The afternoon heard about quick-wins in local engagement, a survey of the role of heritage in Neighbourhood plan making and the (possible?) significance of the INSPIRE project to HERs.


The SENESCHAL Project: Ceri Binding (University of South Wales)
 
Semantic Enrichment Enabling Sustainability of Archaeological Links (SENESCHAL) is a 12 month project funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council and coordinated by the Hypermedia Research Unit at the University of South Wales, together with the Archaeology Data Service as Co-Investigators. Project collaborators include English Heritage, RCAHMS, RCHAMW and others. The project aims to make UK cultural heritage vocabularies available online as Semantic Web resources.  A first set of prominent UK archaeological thesauri and vocabularies are freely available as Linked Open Data as a preliminary outcome of the project at  http://www.heritagedata.org.
During previous project work the team encountered frequent evidence of free text data entry in existing archaeology datasets, with various simple syntactic anomalies being observed within fields intended to comply with a specific controlled vocabulary. Minor errors and differences in spelling or the inconsistent use of punctuation can hinder wider interoperability, and provide a barrier to cross search and reuse of data. The SENESCHAL project objectives will provide tools and techniques to assist in minimising these issues:

• Widening access to key vocabulary resources. Making the terminology more openly accessible as Linked Data could encourage wider adoption of standard terminology and will engender useful community feedback on possible improvements to the vocabularies.
• Improving the consistency of existing metadata. This will be achieved by exemplar bulk semantic enrichment operations to align legacy datasets with controlled vocabulary resources for Linked Data.
• Improving the consistency of future metadata. Better integration of controlled vocabulary resources in the data creation workflow will be facilitated via a suite of web services and user interface controls.

Question: What are the long term plans for the project?

Answer: The domain name for the initiative is paid up for 10 years. It is hoped that progress with the project will be sustained through links with the FISH terminology group.

(Holly Wright ADS) – A second potential outcome might be to work with one or two HERs to integrate the mechanisms into existing systems. Whilst it was possible that the project’s timescales might not exactly correspond with those of potential collaborative partners anyone who was interested was welcome to get in touch.

(CW responded that it might be a useful step to get in touch with exegesis).

Question: How often is the project website being updated?

Answer: At least every 6 months, although greater frequency would be possible with the existing technology. For the English Heritage Thesauri it may depend on the move to a new system as to whether 6 monthly updates are possible       

Question: There has, in the past, been much discussion relating to period in regional contexts. How would SENESCHAL cope with, for example, the Iron Age or Roman periods in Scotland and Wales?

Answer: The period categories carry date ranges to allow comparisons. Additionally, using an example like ‘the English Iron Age’, whilst this concept would be geographically delineated there would be no reason why other identifying concepts might not be created for other regions.

Supplementary question: Would this be workable?

Answer: This is something that has yet to be decided.   


A Report on the HER Benchmark and Audit Discussion: Jane Golding (English Heritage)

The HER Benchmarks for Good Practice, drafted in 2002, have not changed to keep pace with changes in policy or technology. With the appearance of the NPPF and its associated guidance the time has now come for them to be reviewed and plans are under way to initiate this process. It is important that this undertaking is seen to be ‘by the sector for the sector’ and to this end English Heritage, ALGAO and IHBC will all be involved.

The initial move in the project had been to take a step back to ask questions as fundamental as ‘do we need benchmarks?’ This element of the initiative took the form of an online moderated discussion transacted through the HER Forum e-mail list between October and November 2013. This generated 50 postings and also involved IHBC participation. Whilst the issue is specific to England some useful insights were also received from Scotland and Wales. The comments received have been collated (amounting to some 35 pages) and are presently available through the HER Forum file store.

A more detailed account of the discussion can be found at:

https://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/cgi-bin/filearea.cgi?LMGT1=HERFORUM&X=5EEF3244F5EF48CC49&Y=nick.davis%40english-heritage.org.uk&f=/Benchmark_and_Audit_Discussion 

The key points which emerged were:

  • Benchmarks are generally seen as a good thing.
  • They help to provide a definition of HER services.
  • They assist in forward planning and development.

Independent verification was mentioned: the possibility of an ‘Ofsted’ type role evaluating against agreed core values. Another strand of the discussion concentrated on the accuracy of data and how the output of HERs met the needs of a range of audiences and customers. (JG asked how many HERs sought customer feedback. Several members of the audience replied that they did).   

The discussion also touched upon questions relating to the stringency of the benchmarks and how differing capabilities and imperatives could be accommodated. How could aspiration and innovation sit within the same framework used to gauge existing day-to-day realities?

Moving to the question of the HER Audit Programme, responses in the discussion seemed to indicate a widespread perception of audits as a mechanism for testing compliance with benchmarking. Since the appearance of the Benchmarks in 2002, 42 HERs have either entered the audit cycle or revisited pre-existing audits. But, whilst the audit specification have been regularly revised and refreshed during this period the Benchmarks have remained unchanged. This constituted an additional factor underpinning the need for a re-alignment of the two. It might also be observed that audit action plans can take account of local imperatives, which does indicate that there is scope for some degree of flexibility which might accommodate the ‘aspirational’ dilemma perceived by participants in other areas of the debate. 

Benefits which audits are seen as having include:

  • Allowing scope to step back and assess.
  • Demonstrating to the parent body that the HER works within national standards
  • The audit provides a tool with which to fight for better provision.

Following on from this e-mail discussion, the next stage of the process is to be a work shopping exercise in spring 2014. The invitation to these events is open to all, although places will have to be booked in advance. 

Question: Would it be possible for the Content and Computing Survey to form part of the audit process?

Answer:  Whilst the Content and Computing Survey provides some of the information required for an audit the purpose of the survey is a national overview. The Content and Computing Survey summaries are made public whilst audit reports and responses are not. Content and Computing Survey though is part of the mix.

(Nick Davis (English Heritage) added that the Content and Computing Survey has been referenced in developing the audit specification. The Survey, however, operates on a quicker cycle than the audit cycle).
   

The Cemetery and Churchyards Project: Harold Mytum (University of Liverpool)

A consultation exercise was conducted for English Heritage to scope the current state of digital data regarding cemeteries and burial grounds, and the requirements of a range of stakeholders in the use of digital data related to these. The study included a questionnaire to HERs which revealed extremely varied levels of data regarding cemeteries and burial grounds and that many HER officers recognised that the entries in their systems were insufficient, both in terms of quality and detail of data, and in terms of uniformity of format The consultation also assessed the volunteer interest in conducting digital recording of cemeteries and burial grounds, the ways in which this would feed into heritage management structures such as HERs, and how the survey archives would be digitally curated and made freely accessible to the wide range of potential users. The report was delivered to English Heritage at the end of September.

Question: What is the next stage for the project?

Answer: The report emphasises a need for protocols for volunteers that accommodate the degree of detail at which groups and individuals are comfortable working. Like the envisaged protocols the report’s recommendations range from the simple to the complex. Some of the points touched upon include:
• Site descriptions for HERs would probably require some professional input.
• Some central data-checking facility would be desirable.
• How can satisfactory management plans be created? (There are a number of excellent and inexpensive surveying systems which could be employed).
• How can the data be digitally formulated? (ADS are currently examining the protocols with a view to producing a standard format).

Question: Is the report available online?

Answer: (It was established that no-one present had any certain knowledge as to the current status of the report held by EH. Jane Golding (EH) volunteered to pursue the matter).

HM observed that the demand for protocols in this sphere seemed to be demonstrated by the fact that the CBA Protocols issued through its Handbook Recording and Analysing Graveyards (currently out of print) were much sought after (a copy currently on sale with Amazon for £280).       


Heritage Gateway Update: Mandy Roberts (English Heritage)

This session was based on a single underpinning question posed to the audience at the outset: “What are the barriers to hooking up with the Heritage Gateway?”

Comment: Looking at, for example, the case of Solihull, a small unitary authority for which the HER was managed externally by Warwickshire. It seemed unlikely that the UA could be convinced that the time and financial costs involved with participating in the Gateway would be worthwhile.

(MR replied that EH was in a position to provide funding for those who wished to join and also for web-map enabling).

Comment: It would be useful if a guide could be prepared giving information on the time and costs involved. This could be of value in helping individual HERs to determine the most efficient and cost effective way to approach the matter. In some respects the exeGesIS approach used by many looked quite expensive and involved long-term costs. If anything cheaper were available it might attract increased interest.

(Catherine Hardman of the ADS observed that they provided a service to make data available through the Gateway. This did not involve access to live data but no charge was made for data loading).

Question: In the event of an HER adopting web-mapping, was it possible to restrict the precision of the data (as in the case of Portable Antiquities Scheme, for example)? This would have particular significance in the case of cropmark sites.

Answer: MR responded that, if the data was already restricted in the text it would be possible to do so.

Question: Do datasets actually reside within the Gateway or does it serve as a portal?

Answer: The Heritage Gateway is a portal.

Question: When is the next Gateway User Group meeting? Are these meetings also open to non-users?

Answer: The next meeting was to take place in Birmingham. A definite date had not been fixed but it would be between 27th and 31st January 2014. Those HERs that are in the process of joining the Gateway would be welcome to attend. Please contact Mandy Roberts

Comment: Chris Webster noted that, in Somerset the IT department had not been satisfied with the business case and were concerned that the Gateway would ‘trip up’ other datasets within the authority.

(MR saw this as indicating for the Gateway to work on increasing data-awareness for the system).   
          
 
ALGAO Local Engagement Group Update: Ben Wallace (Warwickshire County Council) and Tegwen Roberts (Council for British Archaeology)

Ben Wallace

The ALGAO HER Committee Local Engagement Group seeks to support local engagement links through sharing experience and expertise regarding this topic. Its most recent meeting had been in Cambridge in September 2013. This had included participation by the CBA (concerning their First World War legacies project) and exeGesIS (relating to their collaborative development of an HER survey app with the North York Moors National Park).

The next meeting is scheduled to take place in January 2014. Currently, within England, the north east, Yorkshire, the east midlands and the south east are under represented in the group and increased participation would be welcomed.

When discussing the At the Cambridge meeting it had been decided that the present update should develop the theme of ‘quick wins’ or how local engagement projects can be speedily and productively implemented without incurring huge time requirements and complicated organisational burdens.

These might include:

• Blogging: Warwickshire County Council provide access to a blog. Blogging promoting the services of the HER is presently being done by volunteers.
• Twitter: The Warwickshire Museums’ ‘Oisin the Deer’ tweets have proved very popular.
• Facebook: The Warwickshire County Records Office has a Facebook account and is keen to solicit content for it.
• One off events: Whilst these do take some organisation the burden can often be shared. Many allied categories of organisation (for example libraries, heritage trusts and colleges/universities) are eager to interface with the public and might be interested in working in partnership. Warwickshire County Council is participating in First World War projects and the HER is keen to participate in meetings with local volunteer groups. Also the HS2 initiative is engaging lots of people in the county. This, and the resultant press interest, is also helping to raise the profile of the HER.

Tegwen Roberts

Another good example of harnessing popular trends can be seen in the developing CBA First World War project, tying in as it does the Council’s interest in the future role of societies in archaeology and in ‘Skills for the Future’.  

The CBA is helping in the development of local heritage engagement networks to assist and support local authority archaeology and heritage services. This aims to establish links with the CBA network on a number of levels. Part of this process is the development of recording toolkits with associated workshops and training. The CBA is presently looking for feedback as to how these ideas could be productively taken forward.

Question: How is the First World War website progressing?

Answer: (Louise Ennis, CBA) – The platform for the online questionnaire (already circulated to the HER Forum for comment) will be available to be downloaded in January 2014.     

Question: What is 'NESTA' funding?      

Answer: (BW) The acronym stands for National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts. Warwickshire HER had attempted a joint application with the University but had failed. These typically involve projects undertaken in partnership with academic institutions. 
     

Neighbourhood Plan Initiative: Adam Partington (Locus Consulting)

English Heritage commissioned Locus Consulting to undertake the Neighbourhood Plan Evidence Base Project. The project sought to understand how communities preparing a Neighbourhood Plan are able to access, interpret and use heritage information held by local authority Archives, Museums and Historic Environment Records (HERs). The project is part of an ongoing initiative to promote the use of heritage information in community-led planning. Following stages will focus on providing direct assistance to selected local authorities and on the production of a toolkit to enable them to provide more integrated access across the three types of repository.

An initial information gathering stage was undertaken in two phases. Archives, HERs and Museums responded to an initial questionnaire about their holdings, the ways in which access is provided, and any methods to help interpret information. A second questionnaire canvassed communities about the fabric of their plan areas, skills within plan teams and the types of heritage information used in the plan-making process.

Communities have clear aspirations to use Neighbourhood Plans as a tool to regenerate and conserve the historic fabric of their areas. High proportions accessed historic environment information about their plan areas, showing that routes to accessing information are open. However, communities are not accessing the full breadth of relevant information available to them and are consulting sources other than Archives, HERs and Museums, in particular local history societies.

The main issues concerning the access and use of heritage information arguably concern awareness of the resources available and their potential applications in Neighbourhood Planning. This is compounded by a low level of expertise in heritage management within Neighbourhood Plan teams. However, the importance of issues concerning physical and cognitive access to information cannot be discounted, and local authority repositories are exploring innovative ways of making information available, especially online. The geography of information, in particular its location and attribution to local places, appears to be a common and potentially universal structure for making mediated heritage information accessible in an integrated way.

Access to information remains governed by the format in which it is held and the infrastructure by which it is able to be interrogated. These are at times barriers to access, being constrained by conservation or legal issues, or by over-technical approaches. Consequently, a physical visit remains the optimum way to access the full breadth of heritage information. There is great variation in the ability to accommodate such enquiries, leaving increased emphasis on the ability to provide information by remote enquiry or online. Yet these forms of access, in particular the latter, come with a lesser degree of staff assistance, the brand of assistance most valued by communities surveyed. The availability of local advice and assistance appears key to the successful access and application of heritage information, emphasising the need for sufficient resources at the local authority level.

In lieu of assistance, the availability of standing guidance and mediated (i.e. with some form of interpretation) information at local authority level is highly varied. Guidance is rarely targeted towards Neighbourhood Planning. Moreover, national guidance being used in Neighbourhood Planning rarely engages with heritage issues directly. However, many address issues related to heritage, emphasising the need for Neighbourhood Plan groups to understand the full breadth of heritage information available from Archives, HERs and Museums, and the interdisciplinary ways that it can inform the plan-making process.

As with any community of organisations, there is much that can be learnt from the individual approaches of other pioneering repositories. A huge array of standing guidance, online interfaces and information structures are available to inform the development of more universal approaches, given the right resources. Furthermore, the increasing numbers of information resources, notably online, demonstrate the benefits of developing integrated approaches to making heritage information accessible.

Observation: The NHLE only accepts full site names in its advanced search.

Observation: Whilst intended to make things accessible, the ‘Discovering Shropshire’s History website (a joint venture between the HER and the Shropshire Archives Service) does not retrieve data without firm location information. Unfortunately indexing procedures used for archive entries tend to neglect this aspect. If this is typical it suggests that even some new websites will be of only limited assistance to communities trying to develop neighbourhood plans.  

AP responded that the key thing was that interested parties had the opportunity to use material of this type. Valuable synergies had been demonstrated through resources such as the ‘Distinctly Black Country’ website. In general terms a range of structural limitations had been encountered which might impair the immediate usefulness of information resources. However, these served to highlight the fact that, of the possible ways to retrieve HER data, visiting the HER was definitely the best.       
 

Introducing INSPIRE: Andrew Newman (Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs)

To manage the environment better at European, national and local levels change is needed in how geographical information is managed and made available. The INSPIRE Directive seeks to make those changes happen.  This presentation describes INSPIRE, what needs to be done, by whom and when.  It then explores what historic environment data has been published under the INSPIRE Protected Sites themes and what further historic environment data may be in-scope of the other INSPIRE themes.  HER officers need to consider their data in the context of INSPIRE and work with their colleagues to publish this data as required by INSPIRE.

Observation: It is beginning to look as if elements of the directive’s application are being based on national interpretations. Scotland, for example, views all protected sites as being covered by Annexe 1 of the document.

Question: If the directive is extended to HER records in general it seems possible that things may become unmanageable. For instance, looking at Conservation Areas, (my) HER has provided Conservation Area data to English Heritage but this has not been subsequently updated. Won’t the data covered by INSPIRE also be out of date because of this?

(Following the meeting Martin Newman of EH was consulted on this latter suggestion – On the specific point of the Conservation Area data available through English Heritage: New data is regularly supplied to EH by local authority Conservation Officers or GIS managers and reminders are sent in cases where this has not happened for some time. Updates across the board are not usually provided through HERs as HER officers are not usually responsible for managing this data).

Observation: It might be possible to undertake a preliminary sift of HER data through SHINE (or its Welsh equivalent).        

Observation: The Welsh HERs are held by the archaeological trusts, not within the local authority structure. In terms of the application of INSPIRE this seems to have significant implications.  

Observation: The Local Government Association have undertaken an analysis of local authority data against the INSPIRE themes and identified data topics, this may help HER officers understand the applicability of INSPIRE more generally link:

http://www.local.gov.uk/c/document_library/get_file?uuid=ba19b779-eb8d-404c-af07-25ecd921aed9&groupId=10180