Quantum GIS

Quantum GIS (QGIS) is open source GIS software, available for free download. It runs on Windows, Mac, Linux and Android. QGIS was started in 2002 and from 2007 is supported by the Open Source Geospatial Foundation (OSGeo). OSGeo is a very active global community of people and organisations involved in the geospatial industry and with their support QGIS rapidly grew into a powerful GIS. It is now available as version 2.6 and is becoming a true disruptor to the GIS market. As with other open source projects, one of the main advantages is that the contributors work in the industry and thus there are many little tweaks that exactly match a user’s needs. If you find yourself thinking “hmm, I’d like to …” chances are someone else has had that exact thought and has already implemented it. QGIS is licensed under the GNU GPL and thus can be modified and openly contributed to, as well as being free to download and use.

QGIS QHR2QGIS has a similar look and feel to the Arc GIS suite, and is at least as sophisticated in its display and editing functions, if not more so. It has a range of advantages over most other GIS, not least in terms of cost. In usability it is also advantageous. It integrates with other programs such as PostGIS, GRASS, and MapServer and has an extensive list of plugins. The plugins cover a vast range of functionality, everything from automatically grading colours across a map to searching layers and geocoding. One of our personal favourites is the integration with OpenStreetMap and Google Maps layers, providing satellite or street map layers directly within the GIS. One can thus display one’s own GIS layers directly over the OpenStreetMap layer and it will zoom in and out with your own data. For cultural heritage purposes this is extremely useful.

QGIS ScreenshotIn terms of formats, QGIS imports and exports shapefiles (Arc GIS), kml/kmz (Google Earth), dxf (AutoCAD) and many other formats. A personal fave is that the export to Google Earth functions carries across all the selected fields instead of restricting you to just “Name” and “Description” fields. Once in Google Earth, you can see all the associated data that you exported in a neat table for each point or polygon. Of course, as with other GIS, you can import from text and spreadsheet files too and generate layers.

The only part that lags slightly in functionality is the Map Composer section for creating printed maps, however, this is currently a focus of attention from the developers and it is likely to once again overtake the other products in functionality very soon. To be fair, we haven’t created printed maps from QGIS for months, and certainly not in the latest version, and particularly with active open source software, there are usually lots of advances in the space of a few months.

Overall, we can’t recommend QGIS highly enough. It provides a stable, functional, powerful GIS, as well as access to a community of other users, can be incorporated into any system and you never need to worry about license payments or upgrades again! This is why we choose to use it for our own work and offer training to anyone else wanting to do the same.


AAA conference in Coffs Harbour

The 36th annual Australian Archaeological Association (AAA) conference was held in Coffs Harbour between 1 and 4th December 2013. Claire drove down and presented a paper on the influence of climate change on changing settlement patterns in the Gulf (which is related to her PhD research).

The conference was extremely interesting and enjoyable. President of AAA, Pat Faulkner, opened the conference and Uncle Mark Flanders did a very moving Welcome to Country on behalf of the Garlambirla Guyuu Girrwaa Elders. Sessions then commenced covering a range of interesting topics, starting with an opening keynote by Doug Comer on “The Strategic Value of Best Practices for Archaeological Heritage Management”.

Doug used his considerable experience with ICOMOS and the field of CRM around the world to discuss pressures on heritage management now and in the future, as well as encourage everyone working with heritage to address these issues in the language of economics and politics, and thus be understood by those responsible for legislation and large projects.

Parallel sessions meant the usual challenges of deciding which papers to attend, but there was a broad coverage of interesting topics, with papers largely grouped in specialities. Highlights were the social media session with 2 papers presented by remote via Google Hangout, with presenters physically in the UK, US and France. The Archaeological Data Management session also used Google Hangout so that Ian Johnson could present on Heurist and Brian Ballsun-Stanton could present on FAIMS (along with Shaun Ross, who was physically present) from Sydney. That session was also streamed live online and is available on YouTube here. We encourage anyone interested in any aspect of archaeological data management to watch it.

Another highlight was the FAIMS workshop, which was also recorded and can be accessed here. Although we struggled with the limitations of a very flaky and weak wifi signal, we managed to download the app and access the Heurist module builder for FAIMS. FAIMS is progressing very well. Adela demonstrated the GIS capabilities outside (so we could access GPS as well) and it was very impressive indeed. We strongly urge everyone to have a look at the wiki, give it a go and contribute to this incredibly worthwhile project! Well done all at FAIMS!

All in all a very worthwhile experience and source of a lot of food for thought. We look forward to next year’s conference already!



Heurist is an “academic knowledge management system” developed at the University of Sydney and is the brainchild of Dr Ian Johnson. It draws together Ian’s experience with archaeological data management systems as well as incorporating aspects of his research into best methods of managing time data in archaeology. Ian developed a system called TimeMap, to integrate concepts of time with mapping data. Many of the ideas developed in TimeMap are incorporated into Heurist.

Heurist is therefore has the potential for being a good fit for people dealing with science and humanities data, as it has unique capabilities to manage both time and space built in to its architecture. Heurist has a different approach to management of data to many other systems. Backed by a powerful relational database (MySQL or MariaDB), the Heurist interface allows one to deal with the data in a way that makes sense to those of us working with science and humanities data. Locational data is displayed on a built-in Google maps interface and basic editing (creation of points, polygons etc) can be done directly into the database if required. Time data can be entered as calendar dates, approximate dates or radiocarbon dates (with confidence intervals) and time lines are automatically generated for all records with dates.

Records can be linked through a series of pre-defined relationships, which are then indicated on viewing the data. So, for example, a record concerning a site (displayed with its location marked on the map and a timeline of applicable dates) will show pointers to other records to which it is linked (for example photos or reports of the site). Heurist includes a bibliographic suite of record types to manage bibliographic references, which can be linked to any other records in the database. Other record types are available where previously defined in the system by other users, or of course one can add one’s own specific record types.

Users can share access to databases, managed by access controls, which allow differential access to different parts of the database, if required. Features within the database allow users to share information easily with each other (for example messages noting what records have been added etc) and even maintain a blog within the database.

Heurist can import and export a range of formats and is scalable from as small and simple as you need to capable of handling vast and complex datasets, seamlessly and without any need for porting the data from one system to another. Heurist has been successfully used on a range of projects over the past 7 years. It provides the database behind the Dictionary of Sydney project, a 3D imagery project on Gallipoli for the ABC, the ARC-funded Digital Harlem project and another ARC project on the history of Balinese paintings.

A Heurist database was developed for the Ministry of Culture in Bahrain for their World Heritage Nomination of the Pearling Testimony of Bahrain. The project has since been listed as a World Heritage Site.

Heurist is available as open source software (see the code repository on Google Code), for installation on a server. Some technical expertise is required to install it. If you are interested in using Heurist, please contact us and we can advise on the best implementation for your needs. ArcheFact is an active contributor to Heurist (code, fixes and other expertise) and we have our own instance available for clients.

Heurist and FAIMS are now collaborating so that Heurist can be used as a database to manage the data collected with the FAIMS field recording mobile app. This promises to be a very powerful combination, which we look forward to implementing for our clients. The combination generated a lot of interest at the CAA 2013 conference in Perth.

FAIMS mobile app

An exciting update at the CAA conference was the Federated Archaeological Information Management Systems Project (FAIMS) and in particular, their field recording system for mobile devices. FAIMS is a federally funded project led by the University of New South Wales in conjunction with 41 other organisations around Australia and worldwide, which aims to “create a digital infrastructure for archaeology“.

FAIMS has done an extensive study of what’s already available, both in terms of mobile apps for field recording, as well as running GIS on android devices, and has seen what works and what doesn’t. The project will have a working mobile app for android, specifically tailored for Australian archaeology, but flexible enough to be used for almost any related purpose, available before the end of the year. Prototypes are already available.

What they showed us at the conference looks amazing – a fully customisable interface with, in addition to standard data entry (including GPS capture, photos etc from internal or external devices), options for setting how sure one is of a designation, and mini “dictionaries” of e.g. different ceramic styles/types so that field operatives can pick the closest and in effect say “it looks kind of like this” where “kind of” is optionally specifiable as well. FAIMS is committed to integrating GIS on-the-fly and making sure the whole thing works off-line (which is where most fieldwork takes place, at least in Aus).

As well as an American archaeological database system called TDAR, FAIMS is now also working closely with Heurist. Heurist is a brilliant archaeological database, integrating both time and space in new and novel ways, perfect for archaeologists, and allowing one to structure one’s data in a very effective way. The FAIMS/Heurist combo looks to be very powerful for archaeologists and should put us at the leading edge of archaeological information systems worldwide.

Watch this space for news of further developments!

CAA 2013 was awesome!

The CAA conference in Perth was a fantastic time of catching up with old friends and finding out what’s new and what’s hot in the realms of archaeological computer-ing! ;-)

There was a great selection of keynote speakers and good info in a lot of the sessions. As usual the hallway track was where most of the fundamental work was done, although several discussion sessions (including the ones on FAIMS and GIS/consulting, which were incredibly useful) also provided a good overview of where things are going and what we all think about it.

Catching up with Ian Johnson was awesome, his Heurist project has come a long way and was released under an Open Source license just before the conference. I had already started installing it the moment it was released, but during the conference I worked on it some more as obviously having Ian there was a great asset. Together we were able to identify and work through most issues that enabled me to create a working system.

While it might stress out some people to not yet have a slick packaged product that “just works”, I regard it as perfectly normal for a project that has been internal to require some extra work and feedback when it meets the big wide world. Typically this is something (other) companies provide and that’s one of the key things we’re looking at (providing hosted Heurist for clients). It’s not the first open source project I’ve been involved in. I’ve made several code contributions since, which Ian and his team have incorporated. Their responsiveness is a great sign that they understand the Open Source development model and its benefits.

It was really great to see the strides that are taking place with Heurist and FAIMS and their interactions with each other. The use of mobile devices for recording in the field is definitely the new hot idea and it was particularly useful to hear people talk from experience about what works and what doesn’t. More on that later. Of course, as always, the database behind it is absolutely critical and that’s where Heurist comes into its own and leaves everything else way behind. More on that soon too.

Favourite quote from the conference: Eric Kansa‘s keynote, “many archaeologists are using sophisticated data models using the wrong tools, such as Excel.” Over 10 years ago I declared “Arjen’s rule#1: A relational database is not a spreadsheet” which still gets quoted today. It’s as relevant as it was then. More on that too, soon.