Initial decisions have to be taken concerning the design, content and structure of the database that will underpin the digital archive. To some extent, these aspects will depend on its principal intended use and target audience, and the envisaged procedures for its operation and maintenance.
In some cases, especially if there are any urban rehabilitation or restoration projects that pre-date the conflict, it may be possible to build on existing databases or archives. A case in point is the university project Aleppo Archive in Exile, which has produced a detailed digital map of the old city of Aleppo as it existed before the armed conflict there.
A key preliminary decision concerns the choice of an appropriate database model, e.g. hierarchical or relational. The database should allow for the systematic storage of all relevant information in a variety of file formats encompassing text, images, video and audio. The main categories for storing, processing, filtering and retrieving data also have to be determined from the outset.
Depending on the intended use and target audience of the digital archive, the database can be developed either as a standalone solution or by adapting an open source database model, such as SQL or PHP, which are particularly suitable for web-based archives.
Collecting information is one of the key activities when establishing a digital archive of urban cultural heritage. Relevant information, such as plans, architectural drawings, documents, photographs and videos, often exists only in an analogue format. Potential sources include academic and research institutions, museums, public archives, and private owners, tenants or collectors.
Given the vast array of sources, a network of specialists and professionals is needed to research and collect as much relevant information as possible. It is crucial to establish contact, while hostilities are still ongoing, with professionals who have worked, or are still working, in antiquities departments, academic institutions, research centres and city archives.
Social media and crowdsourcing can be used to encourage private individuals to make data and information available. Addressing the relevant audiences is a task for experienced social media and public outreach managers.
Digitisation of data
All the collected information has to be categorised and named according to the database structure, and digitised in appropriate data formats:
- In a simple solution, the information can be scanned and stored as image files with additional metadata as needed.
- In a more sophisticated approach, maps, plans and other visual information can be vectorised to facilitate their integration into digital base maps or geographic information systems, and written information can be transformed into text in order make integration easier and allow the implementation of more comprehensive search functions.
Data consistency, integrity and security are among the other key aspects to be considered when developing and managing digital archives, especially during an armed conflict. From a longer-term perspective, compatibility with future formats and technologies is another important issue.
Links to geographical information
The information contained in a digital archive can be linked to geographic information or integrated in a geographical information systems (GIS) that allows the processing of spatial and locational data. A precondition of such integration is the consistent geo-referencing of all objects contained in the database.
A simple solution is to link database objects to Google Maps or a similar open source mapping system.
A more sophisticated option entails integrating the database in a fully-fledged GIS that allows spatial information to be presented, processed and visualised in thematic layers. In this case, vectorised information from the database could be integrated in the GIS base maps.