Philip Buckland, SEAD Project director:

"This project will better prepare future generations for answering complex questions on past, present and future environments through digital means"

Phil BucklandWhat is the driving force behind the SEAD project?

The project's driving force is open access, analytical empowerment, scientific transparency and making data freely available to the research and professional community by providing an integrated system for the storage, dissemination and analysis of data relating to past human activities, and environmental and climatic change. Large scale palaeoenvironmental datasets cannot be efficiently analysed without the help of databases and are often lost in archives or left unpublished.

What are the project's implications for future research agendas? Which fields will benefit most?

The implications are enormous. The Strategic Environmental Archaeology Database (SEAD) allows online access to a range of data never before made available digitally, let alone in a single system. It also allows new kinds of research looking at complex cultural, social and environmental interactions over large geographical and temporal ranges. Archaeology, environmental science, geoscience, palaeoecology and related fields can perhaps benefit most; but so too will any field in which past organism distributions or soil and sediment changes, or their implications, are important. SEAD contains a considerable amount of data on insects and entomologists will benefit greatly by being able to examine past distribution patterns with respect to the origins of modern faunas. It also stores modern habitat and collection data for work on contemporary biodiversity, sustainability and conservation issues.

What can be learned from studying the past environments, climates and human impacts the project aims to help reconstruct?

These studies can yield a better understanding of past relationships between people and their surroundings; how the environment and climate influenced their possibilities and choices; and how their actions influenced both society and the environments themselves. For example, in any particular culture, in a particular landscape, climate can either enable farming, or, perhaps due to a series of bad summers, render it unsustainable.

What are some of the main challenges in creating a large-scale, web-accessible, GIS-ready database?

Initially, designing a powerful, flexible database which satisfies the data, access and analysis needs of a broad spectrum of power users. Secondly, developing intuitive interfaces tailored to the needs of these and other potential users. We have settled on a concept of multiple front ends to a single database, combining online and downloadable software. Thirdly, funding data entry and, finally, convincing people to share their data and take part in the project to create something greater than the sum of its parts.

How will the system be integrated into teaching and online learning interfaces in the future?

Initially, the system will be incorporated into UmeƄ University's campus and online archaeology courses. Material will then be made available to help others incorporate SEAD into their teaching. Online learning interfaces and supporting material will subsequently be developed in which students will be able to simulate the research process using real data and interfaces as used by the researchers themselves. This will better prepare future generations for answering complex questions on past, present and future environments through digital means. We will also be working with international partners, especially the Neotoma Consortium, based in the U.S., towards producing school level educational and museum orientated systems.

Is the database intended just for researchers and professionals or will amateurs have access to it as well?

Everyone can get access to the system, but it will, at least initially, be orientated towards researchers and professionals. Our funding is clearly research infrastructure-orientated and there are fundamental differences between designing interfaces for the latter and for the public.