On the closure of Edina's Unlock service

This is a guest post by Julie Allinson, Technology Development Manager for Library & Archives at York. Julie managed the technical side of the 'York's Archbishops' Registers Revealed' project. This post discusses the demise of Edina's Unlock service and wonders how sustainable open data services are.

It has recently come to my attention that Edina are retiring their 'Unlock' service on the 31st July 2016. Currently that's all I know as, AFAIK, Edina haven't provided any background or any information about why, or what users of this service might do instead. I also wasn't aware of any kind of consultation with users.

Edina's message about the Unlock service - not very informative. 

At York we've been using Unlock to search the DEEP gazetteer of English place names in our Archbishops' Registers editing tool. DEEP is a fantastic resource, an online gazetteer of the 86 volume corpus of the Survey of English Place-Names (SEPN). Without Edina's Unlock service, I don't know any way of programmatically searching it.

Records from DEEP via Edina's Unlock service in our Archbishops' Registers editing tool 

Co-incidentally (or not?) the http://www.placenames.org.uk/ web site, which the records returned via the Unlock DEEP search link to, is unavailable. The site is a Web site for the DEEP data and our editors use this site to help identify and disambiguate place names.

I contacted Edina and they have promised to pass on further information about the end of the Unlock service as it becomes available later in the month. They also pointed me to the Institute for Name Studies at the University of Nottingham (INS) to find out why the place names site was unavailable. The initial response from INS was 'this is not our website'. I mentioned that placenames.org.uk is listed as one of their resources and they are now following up for me with a colleague, who is away at the moment. I've also contacted the Centre for Data Digitisation and Analysis (CDDA) at Queen's University Belfast who mention the site as one of their 'project databases' on the CDDA web site. As of writing, I haven't had a response.

UPDATE: As of Thursday 7th July, the site seems to be back. Yay!

Entry from the Archbishops' Registers places list, complete with broken link 

All of this is quite worrying as it means many wasted development hours implementing this feature and reflects badly on our site - displaying broken links is not something we want to do.

So what do we do now? Well, in practical terms, unless I receive any other information from Edina to the contrary, I'll write out our use of Unlock / DEEP from the editing tool at the beginning of August and our editors will have to switch to manually creating place records in the tool. We've also been using Unlock to search the Ordnance Survey, so I'll hopefully be able to add a search of their linked data services directly. But we particularly liked as it DEEP gave us historical place names and enough information to help editors make sure they were selecting the correct contemporary place.

The bigger questions that this raises, though, are:

  • how do we ensure that important datasets and services coming out of projects can be sustained?
  • how can we trust that open data services will continue to be available? even those that appear to have the backing of a service provide like Edina or Jisc
  • how do we find out when they aren't?
  • and how do we have a voice when decisions like this are being made?

Jenny Mitcham, Digital Archivist


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