“Small Data” in ISAW Papers


As a follow-up to the 2011 NEH-sponsored Linked Ancient World Data Institute (LAWDI), I contributed to an edited volume of ISAW Papers in which I argue for the importance of small-scale individual work such as dissertations in the wider linked data network of digital late antiquity resources.


McMichael, A.L. “Byzantine Cappadocia: Small Data and the Dissertation.” In Current Practice in Linked Open Data for the Ancient World, edited by Thomas Elliott, Sebastian Heath, John Muccigrosso. ISAW Papers 7 (2014). [online publication]


ISAW Papers 7.14 (2014)
Byzantine Cappadocia: Small Data and the Dissertation
A. L. McMichael

By incorporating Linked Data, a previously-siloed, solo project can become a connected, open, collaborative means for contributing to scholarship and public knowledge. Documenting Cappadocia is a website focused on Byzantine monuments from approximately the 6th to 11th centuries in Cappadocia, a region in central Turkey. I created the website while a PhD student in art history at the Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY), where it is hosted and supported by the New Media Lab in collaboration with GC Digital Fellows program. The project’s primary purpose is to offer a scholarly introduction to the area and facilitate an online community. While Byzantine monuments in Cappadocia have been the subject of extensive research, there are very few open access reference materials on the topic. The monuments are also visited by millions of tourists each year, yet there is a lacuna of photos with adequate and accurate captions describing them. Documenting Cappadocia began addressing these issues with a bibliography, photos, and links to open access resources.

Following LAWDI 2012, I used the project as a case study in how a solo researcher with limited resources can contribute to the wider Ancient World network. Documenting Cappadocia’s photographs are now available with a CC-BY license in the Ancient World Image Bank Flickr group and are annotated with Pleiades machine tags. Entries in the bibliography now link to permanent URIs in WorldCat or JSTOR, following the lead of Phoebe Acheson’s Ancient World Open Bibliographies. I have also had fruitful discussions with LAWDI participants about future contributions to the Pleiades gazetteer. Since the LAWDI network emphasizes both human connections and links between data sets it enabled me to collect and organize data with like-minded scholars and relevant projects in mind.

These implementations brought to light issues that many non-developers have in understanding Linked Data principles, and the website became a vehicle for advancing my own digital literacy. A blog post titled, “Linked Data for the Uninitiated” addresses jargon and introductory concepts. Not surprisingly, the most actionable principle of Linked Data is a focus on openness. For small projects, utilizing out-of-the-box content management systems (i.e. WordPress plug-ins or Omeka’s Dublin Core metadata standards) with an emphasis on openness and stable URIs can have a profound effect on digital scholarship.

The website remains a work in progress, generating small data sets that are constructed to be reused and remixed. This strategy has been crucial in the extension of Linked Data principles to my dissertation research, which is also on Byzantine Cappadocia. Referring to such models, Rufus Pollock insists that small data “packages” are scalable and solve problems, calling them the “real revolution” in democratizing data (Pollock 2013). Joris Pekel adds that experts such as curators and archivists should work alongside the wider public to create and enrich small data sets, granting them a significant stake in opening up public dialogue (Pekel 2013). Their commentary highlights the contributions that dissertations can make to the semantic web.

Recent academic dialogue calls in question the underlying value of dissertations, criticizing the lack of collaborative process and isolated research environment required to produce a monographic text (Patton 2013). However, even the most traditional dissertations are built on data, much of which is relegated to appendices. My dissertation has a bibliography, map of sites, and catalog of images, all of which can be valuable data in their own right. Alongside my traditional art history dissertation, I am building a database of Byzantine monuments using Dublin Core elements, controlled vocabularies, and stable URIs for each. Since the dissertation provides a foundation for the bridge between student and early career researcher, the goal is to experiment with the visualization and sharing of data in order to assert the research into the wider range of ancient and medieval scholarship.

In conclusion, Linked Data principles are a practical way to integrate small projects, including dissertation research, into a wider community and to develop collaborative methods surrounding a solo project. Structuring this data in such a way that it can be remixed by others offers a number of benefits for a solo researcher or small team. First, controlled vocabularies and metadata standards provide precedents and parameters for the scope of the work and encourage the use of best practice guidelines. Also, Linked Data expands the definition of collaboration, offering possibilities to network with projects of a similar subject matter or scope. It incorporates niche topics into the wider realm of scholarship and public knowledge, offering context. It also helps identify and widen the potential audience for the work.
Works Cited

[Patton 2013] Patton, Stacy. “The Dissertation Can No Longer Be Defended.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 11 February 2013. Available at: <http://chronicle.com/article/The-Dissertation-Can-No-Longer/137215/>

[Pekel 2013] Pekel, Joris. ‘Big Data vs. Small Data: What about GLAMs?’ 2 May 2013. OpenGLAM. Available at: <http://openglam.org/2013/05/02/big-data-vs-small-data-what-about-glams/>.

[Pollock 2013] Pollock, Rufus. ‘Forget Big Data, Small Data is the real revolution’ 22 April 2013. Open Knowledge Foundation Blog. Available at: <http://blog.okfn.org/2013/04/22/forget-big-data-small-data-is-the-real-revolution/>

©2014 A. L. McMichael. Published under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license.

This article is part of ISAW Papers 7.