WikiHRAF? Or, open data for anthropology

WikiHRAF? Or, open data for anthropology

It has been interesting to see WikiLeaks unfold, and while I’m concerned about the potential harm, it also has me thinking again about what it means to have data be accessible, and online. When we talk about open access to anthropology, should that in some way include letting our colleagues have access to masses of fieldnotes which we take, but never use?

Old and New, by ben vickery, on Flickr

Thinking about this issue, I’ve outlined some of the issues that I see below. Ethics
In our ethics class two years ago, we talked a lot about collaborative ethics, academic honesty, the sticky issues of NAGPRA, & etc. But one of the big complaints from archaeologists concerned the common practices of ‘hiding’ information and not publishing until a complete picture is constructed.

Students questioned whether this was actually ethical in any real sense, especially when it stretches on for ten or twenty or thirty years. Perhaps this is more of a problem in biological and archaeological subfields, as they need others’ data to construct a scientifically valid picture. Cultural anthropologists don’t expect to make all their site notes available, and we’ve mostly given up on making comprehensive statements about the world we live in (except in little fits of theoretical cleverness that are quickly dismanted by others).

At any rate, I have to wonder: why do we not have an effective WikiHRAF as anthropologists? Something where we could see others’ relevant experiences without waiting years for one 20-page stuffy article?

Benefits that I can think of:
Open access to information we’re not currently using. For instance, I interviewed people in Central Asia about Islam, but my real focus was new religious movements. On the other hand, my colleague Del Schwab is focused on Islam but also hears comments about new movements. Some effective way to share the bits we aren’t planning to use for specific articles in the near future could benefit everyone.

Expansion of HRAF. I’m a bit tired of hearing how great HRAF is for teaching introductory courses. From my perspective, it’s really out of date — strong on our favorite essentialized totem tribes of Africa, but weak on things like transnational flows of people, in chronicling changes over time since the 1950s, or in any places like Central Asia that have only recently been opened to western ethnographers.

Collaboration with and access for non-anthropologists. I’ve written about this before in the context of missionaries’ “Joshua Project.” I would love to see a combination of:

  • HRAF’s categorization of topic
  • The Joshua Project’s statistical layout of peoples
  • The World Factbook’s general information
  • Locally-written journalism and blogs
  • StoryCorps’ personal narratives
  • PeaceCorps and Mission blogs
  • The in-depth fieldnotes of anthropologists

… and accessible to all. Well, it would be an anthropologist’s dream. If I could be the person to set up something like that, I could die happy. 80 years from now. When it finally comes to fruition.


  • The balance between public and protected, which is an issue when there are large dumps of information.
  • Potential misuse by governments, corporations, or even local elites over other locals.
  • The need for peer-review or some sort of vetting and quality control.
  • A way to assess security. Obviously things like, “I talked on the bus with a scuzzy but charming old man who described his work as a chemist in Soviet times and tried to get my phone number” (true story) are different than “Here are detailed notes from the meetings of an already surveilled population” (also true story). How do you restrict potentially harmful information appropriately if you have open sharing of notes?
  • The technical details of scanning, OCR, anonymizing, hosting, sorting, and torrenting/communication. This would be a big issue, and I think it’s part of what has kept HRAF from being a useful resource.
  • Getting it into the hands of locals. This goes back to a general need for summaries, at the least, in local and trade languages. Could you invite local journalists and nonprofit workers to cover it in local media?
  • Spaces for people to upload their own communities’ histories, life histories, &etc? Can local people post their own ethnographies? Where’s the line between anthropology and other forms of local knowledge production?

Even if it’s not a full wiki, which can be time-consuming for participants involved, I’d love to see a low-cost, Open Access resource that would supplement more refined publications — even just a list of the fieldnotes people have, and then you could contact them for old anonymized notes which they’re not currently publishing on. Is it possible? Any thoughts?

Thoughts? Leave a note here!