Discover the Past with Tech of the Future

You can’t preserve a historic site that doesn’t exist. And as far as the law is concerned, if a historic site has not been surveyed and entered into an authoritative inventory, it doesn’t exist.

nhpa-survey

The duty to survey and inventory is the first responsibility delegated to U.S. states by the National Historic Preservation Act. 16 U.S.C. 470a(b)(3)(A).

But this first principle of preservation planning can be incredibly challenging and expensive to execute, especially in an era of ever-decreasing funds. That’s why the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) and the World Monuments Fund (WMF) teamed up to create Arches—a free, open source software system to manage all types of immovable cultural heritage (click here for a fairly current synopsis of the Arches project).

I reached out to David Myers, a member of the Arches project team, who was kind enough to answer a few questions about this innovative heritage inventory and management system.

(1) Now that the Arches software is available for use, how are you getting the word out to potential users?

That’s a big part of where we are right now. We have a full schedule of international conferences to attend this fall, where we will be holding information sessions on the software, and anyone who is interested in catching up with us can find more information at  http://archesproject.org.

After the implementation of Arches for the City of Los Angeles in February 2015 we plan to have more dissemination efforts in the US given that a number of customizations can be taken advantage of by US heritage organizations. In addition, the Arches community forum, which can be found on the project website, currently has around 200 members from around the world and is a place where many IT and heritage professionals are sharing information about the system.

We are a small project team, but we are always trying to broaden our reach, and talking to potential adopters of Arches is always very informative for us and something that we seek to do as much as possible. But it’s not very hard to get people’s interest. Frankly, the most common response that we hear is “this is exactly what we’ve been waiting for”—so many institutions have been struggling to find a good solution to this problem for a very long time. Until now, it’s something that has not been addressed as comprehensively as we are trying to do.

(2) How much did it cost to develop Arches 1.0?

Arches-Logo-300pxThis is a very difficult question to answer because the GCI and WMF’s mission is to advance the heritage conservation field and therefore we absorb our staff costs into our projects. We’ve also benefited from voluntary contributions from other organizations, namely English Heritage and the Flanders Heritage Agency in Belgium and many others. The software development costs for version 1.0 were probably around a million dollars, which was shared equally between the GCI and WMF.

(3) If an institution wants to implement the Arches system, what expertise is required?

The skills of an IT specialist would be required to configure, potentially customize, and install Arches, and of course from time to time to maintain the system.

(4) How many institutions are currently using the Arches platform?

We know of very many people who are exploring its use, and we are often in touch with them. But it looks like our first implementation will come from the City of Los Angeles.

As many of your readers probably know, SurveyLA has been a huge effort to survey many hundreds of thousands of properties in Los Angeles, and it resulted in the collection of rich data. The GCI is working together with the City of Los Angeles to customize Arches for them to use to make that information available to the public and to manage it and keep it updated in the future.

Deciding on a new enterprise system can be a long process, and we are trying to do our best to make sure that people recognize Arches as a new option that’s available.

(5) Are there some types of inventory-managing cultural institutions that would not benefit from Arches?

We think that Arches will serve the needs of most institutions working with cultural heritage places. Heritage inventories exist at all scales, and in different cultural contexts, but we have found out that they all have many things in common. And we have thought hard about what the core functionalities of inventory systems are, and about how to best offer them in Arches, in a user-friendly way.

The best way to think of Arches is as a great platform that can be configured and customized as required—that’s one of the benefits of the open-source approach that we followed. The truth is that when we are talking about agencies that operate at a high enough level, any system of this kind will require a degree of customization and integration with all the other systems that are also in use. When it comes to further customizing Arches, the sky is the limit—depending on the available resources, of course.

And even if you decide that it’s not for you, it is the result of years of development, so we think that everyone who is interested in information management for heritage places can benefit from learning more about our experience and our approach.

(6) About how long would it take a SHPO from a large state (such as my home state of Georgia) to fully transition to the Arches system? What would be the estimated cost?

If an organization doesn’t have legacy data then the cost would not be very significant. The effort would only be focused on configuring, potentially customizing, and installing the software.

However, for a typical SHPO from a large state that will undoubtedly have large amounts of legacy data, potentially from a variety of sources, transition to any new information system would require significant effort. Because the customization of Arches for Los Angeles will incorporate US National Register standards, we expect that the effort required for implementation of Arches by other US heritage organizations will be greatly reduced because many of the US federal requirements will be in place.

In the near future, we also hope to put together some estimates of the cost of various typical implementations.

Conclusion

The Arches software is an important part of a much larger “open movement” that includes open source, open access, open data, open educational resources and others. As with the proponents of these related trends, the Arches team believes that a powerful, widely-adopted open source inventory management system will lead to new historical knowledge. You truly can discover the past with this technology of the future.


Clint Tankersley is a Georgia attorney specializing in cultural heritage law. Read my bio here.