We tend to think about open data as a relatively new phenomenon, but really it’s been around for thousands of years. Inspired by a post by Stephan Wolfram outlining the history of systematic data and computable knowledge, I’ve decided highlight some ancient historical milestones of open data.
For at least 20,000 years people have been tallying notches on bones, wood and stone. Presumably, Stone Age people were counting the number of antelope in a herd and number of fish caught, and the data would often be shared (open data) between individuals and/or between tribes for personal services and trade.
From over 17,000 years ago we have the Lascaux cave paintings. These incredible works of art tell us stories about the hunting and survival of our ancestors. While not exactly machine readable, these paintings contain pictographic data about horses, stags, cattle, and bison of the prehistoric age. They paint for us a picture of the hearts and minds of the Palaeolithic people.
Hieroglyphics dating back to 3,200 BCE are examples of open data. Hieroglyphic data would be seen in fields, schools, and on public structures, while some hieroglyphics were hidden in the tombs or temples of pharaohs. Among other subjects, the ancient Egyptians used hieroglyphics to communicate information about religion and government. Hieroglyphics were used to keep important records of yearly tax collection and grain and cattle production. The open hieroglyphics of the pharaohs’ scribes are some of the first examples of open government data.
Stonehenge, dating back to 2950 BCE, is another open data monument in our history. The stones were placed to mark sunrise at the midsummer solstice, sunset at the midwinter solstice, and likely had other astronomical significance.
For many years the Inukshuk was a form of open data used by the Inuit for communication and survival. The Inukshuk data told Inuit travellers that they were on the right path by providing a waypoint or navigation or directional aid. They also may have indicated migration routes or places where hunting and fishing were plentiful.
There are many more examples in our ancient and modern history of open data, from Babylonian stone boundary markers that record the ownership of land to modern data about politician’s travel expenditures. If you have any examples of open data in our near or ancient history you’d like to share, please feel free to leave a comment below.