Monumental Data, Monumental Data Access Challenges

by Justin Barton
March 3, 2014
Non-profit organization CyArk works with its vast network of partners to aggregate and archive 3D data of our collective human history, to transform that data into useful conservation and management tools, and to create education and research materials. We strive to educate the public through sharing information about our precious world heritage and hope to inspire advocacy for the protection of cultural sites. At the same time, CyArk aims to leverage cutting-edge documentation technologies to assist researchers and site managers in finding new ways to utilize 3D geospatial data for cultural studies or physical conservation on-site. CyArk discusses these objectives with each of our partners, and collaborates with them in determining how the 3D data will be used and shared.

In the heritage preservation field the paradigm shift to 3D is just beginning. 3D data capture and its utilization for site management is growing significantly, but it is not yet ubiquitous. As a result, there can be hesitation from site authorities in creating open data, as it is commonly perceived. CyArk faces challenges in meeting both the public’s thirst for data and site managers’ concerns about security, improper commercial activities, and more.

So, let’s dive into the debate a little to understand the evolving playing field and the challenges organizations like CyArk face.

First, what is open data? Interestingly, the common perception doesn't necessarily capture the full picture of the Open movement.

The Open Knowledge Foundation defines "open" in the following way: "A piece of content or data is open if anyone is free to use, reuse, and redistribute it—subject, at most, to the requirement to attribute and share-alike." In summary, by making something open, barriers set by price and permission are removed. The benefits of the wider Open Movement (open data, open access, open software, etc.) are widely noted, from improving education and journalism to spurring and aiding objective scientific discovery and understanding.

But not everyone wants to share everything openly in the same way.

A typical, easy-to-use licensing tool in the Open arena is Creative Commons licensing, yet Creative Commons provides six possible licenses users can apply to their work or data! The US branch of Creative Commons summarizes the Creative Commons licensing scheme succinctly on their website, "Share your work: Choose your terms." If following the definition of "open" provided above, only two of these six licenses meet the minimalist requirements to be classified as truly open.

Going beyond the various license options, it is worth noting that there are other remaining barriers to data access even once content is open, such as: language barriers, disabled access barriers, connectivity barriers (i.e., the digital divide), and, most relevant to this discussion, censorship or filtering barriers. In essence, "open" is not synonymous with "universal" (Suber† 2013).

Because CyArk’s open data policy includes filtering data for security or privacy concerns, it is often critiqued as “less open.” 3D reality capture, particularly 3D LiDAR data, which is millimetrically accurate and engineering-grade data, raises significant security concerns for many high-profile heritage site managers. In the era of the “war on terrorism” and concurrent revolutions in the Near and Middle East, the former Soviet Bloc, and South America, the world abounds with political and religious ideologies at strife. Heritage sites are often targeted as a way of showing regime change, or to oppress a certain group by destroying its cultural symbols. For a manager of a sensitive or iconic heritage site, the fact that laser scanning can reveal every brick is a double-edged sword of revealing intimate details. Thus many CyArk heritage partners, particularly high profile sites, choose to share their site data with the public through restricted access and/or filtering of the original LiDAR data.

Data sets in our archive represent heritage sites destroyed by (suspected) arson fire as well as systematic vandalism. With these histories in mind, CyArk understands that the heritage sites’ security concerns are legitimate.

Additionally, for sites of all levels of recognition or fame, funding the maintenance and preservation of the site is a concern. It is no secret that heritage is a severely underfunded industry. Site authorities depend heavily on visitor entrance fees, concessions stand sales, and government funding to keep sites accessible to the public and keep them from degrading irreparably. Ticket sales are a sustaining revenue for these culturally significant venues. In 2013, California State Parks narrowly avoided closing roughly one-quarter of its parks due to lack of funding and state government budget cuts. It was this threat that rallied non-profits, businesses, and the public to come to the aide of the parks; 65 of the 70 slated for closure remained open in the end. Cultural heritage site managers are sometimes concerned that open data will not provide a direct contribution to the preservation of the actual, real world site. However, small licensing fees or similar funding schemes may insure our heritage still benefits from data access by the public. Could a reasonable license fee to download 3D printer ready models or full, raw LiDAR data assist in site preservation? This is a topic that still requires examples and informed discussion with all parties to find a solution that appeases the public and ensures the preservation of the physical heritage sites.

Today, museums, such as the Smithsonian, are more widely adopting the 3D digitization of artifacts and sculptures for mass public consumption of data. Even so, many site managers perceive a difference between sharing movable objects or artifacts and a building or monument that can be destroyed—potentially with tourists in or on the historic structure. There is a level of education and adaptation of heritage experts to 3D data that still needs to take place. As Geoffrey A. Moore says in his book on marketing the high-tech, Crossing the Chasm, “The point of greatest peril in the development of a high-tech market lies in making the transition […] to a mainstream market dominated by [those] who are predominantly pragmatists.” Heritage is in this transition period where the pragmatist authorities must be convinced of the benefits of open data as outweighing the threats or revenue challenges. CyArk believes that this can be accomplished through a combination of an open data policy that is responsive to sites’ concerns and coinciding efforts to educate sites about the benefits of sharing heritage data to educate and inspire the public.

As an additional challenge, many of CyArk’s licensing agreements were entered into long before the “third industrial revolution” of 3D printing began. As such, CyArk’s licensing agreements with our heritage partners, particularly our older projects, do not address the latest concerns and demands of the industry and the public; they have not evolved to reflect the capacity and capabilities of data sharing and data use. We are working to catch up with demands for data in a way that is safe and acceptable for the protection of heritage sites, while creating useful and enjoyable access to data. CyArk is committed to improving the way we share heritage data with the public, and we are now undertaking an initiative to revisit and revamp the organization’s entire data licensing structure.

As CyArk strives to move forward with open data strategies, it has succeeded in removing some, if not all, barriers for much of the website’s online content. Some projects are fully accessible (point cloud and all) for non-commercial/educational requests, while many others have open access to the derived multimedia (architectural drawings, photographs, animations, education curriculum, etc.), if not the LiDAR data itself. CyArk agrees with Suber (2013) that “removing [some] barriers is a significant plateau worth recognizing with a special name” i.e. “open data.”

CyArk will continue to champion the digital preservation and archiving of heritage data representing our collective human history. We are excited about this next wave of technological advances, and we look forward to working with partners to further improve accesses to humanity’s built history, while respecting cultural sensitivities and security concerns. You can view CyArk’s online Data Use Policy page for updates or more information.

†Peter Suber is the Director of the Harvard Open Access Project and Director of the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication.

Creative Commons,

Creative Commons United States,

Journal of open archaeology data. “FAQ.” Accessed February 26, 2014.

Moore, Geoffrey A. 2014. Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customers. New York: HarperBusiness Essentials

Open Knowledge Foundation. “Open Definition.” Accessed February 26, 2014.

Suber, Peter. 2013. “Open Access Overview”. Last modified December 16, 2013.
Original image credit: <a href="">Cncplayer</a>. The image was cropped and enhanced for color. This file is licensed under the <a href="">Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license</a>.
Copies of project data being sent to CyArk's secure archive with Iron Mountain.