Robust, Open, Flexible and Offline Digital Data Collection in the Field.

(Note- originally published here: on Sept. 25, 2015).

First, a little background… My name is Ben Carter and I am currently an assistant professor of anthropology at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA. However, I came to the project described below long before I was lucky enough to get my current job. My essential perspective was forged in the fires of many years in “in-between” states- as a graduate student, an adjunct and a non-tenure-track faculty member. At the same time, I was trying to run a field school- because I believe in the fundamental pedagogical value of field school for those going into archaeology and for everyone else. However, because I operated in these in-between states, I often had severe budget and time constraints. Initially, I had hoped to employ digital tools in the field in order to save time, thus allowing me to spend more time with my students discussing important anthropological issues and less time on data entry. Although I have field tested a range of options; none have done what I want them to do (and most cost me MORE time). Indeed, my students will tell you that these attempts, while perhaps educational, were quite frustrating.   Therefore, broadly speaking, my goal has been to develop a field data collection system that is inexpensive, easy to deploy and use and results in data in a format that can be openly shared. These characteristics would not only ensure my own ease of use, but enable other archaeologists to give it a whirl. The project should yield a product useful to graduate students, faculty with severely limited resources, community projects, small CRM firms and anyone else.

Beyond my own experience, archaeologists have been shifting towards collecting data digitally in the field for some time. These systems can be as simple as using an app on a smart phone or as complex as setting up a WiFi network- including a server (laptop) and multiple data collection devices (such as iPads)- in the field.  We have done this largely to reduce both time spent converting paper-based data to digital as well as to reduce the errors introduced in this process. Also, a digital collection system is simply the first stage of a digital pipeline that funnels data to both online publishing and archival platforms. However, many of the systems developed within archaeology have been hampered by five major concerns:

First, many employ proprietary software (Filemaker Pro is one of the best known) and/or hardware that limit the integration, analysis and open dissemination of data and restrict flexibility. Similarly, once entangled in proprietary software and hardware, it is extremely difficult to leave- at least partially because they have a steep learning curve.

Second, the cost of proprietary software and the devices needed to deploy it limit its applicability to  larger, well-funded academic projects or CRM companies. Smaller groups and individuals, including small academic teams, faculty at small less-well-funded schools, graduate students, and small CRM firms, cannot sustainably afford these systems, even if the may be able to afford a one-time purchase.

Third, while proprietary software often supplies a wide array of options making it attractive, they can neither provide all present requirements nor those that may be necessary in the future. An open, community-based tool can be relatively quickly re-purposed and modified to account for nearly any contingency- in the present or the future. All this should be possible with minimal time investment and assistance from an open source community.

Fourth, most of these data collection systems require either a wireless local network or a connection to a cellular network so that the collection tool, such as a tablet, can communicate with the database on a server. While this is logistically feasible for many (especially small, localized) excavations, they are not applicable to field survey. For these tools to be used in field survey, a cellular connection is required. The tool we hope to design can be used offline and then synchronized with a database once a connection is established.

Fifth, while there are some serviceable open-source projects, these are platform specific (e.g., FAIMS is designed for Android). We prefer a browser based system in order to avoid the problems associated with restricting tools to a particular platform. We would like to build a field data collection system that is open, inexpensive, highly flexible, browser-based, and can be used offline. We believe that this exists in a set of open-source software known as

The goal of my project- or rather OUR project for I am working with a fellow institute participant who will have a separate post and other partners are being courted- is to develop a tool that remedies these issues.  We hope that the end product of this project is a tool that:
1.    Is browser-based (and, therefore, device independent)
2.    Can be used off-line (now possible with HTML5)
3.    Employs open source code
4.    Can be connected to a database of choice (proprietary or open-source)
5. is inexpensive and simple (at least on the user end once it has been built)
6. promotes the open use of resulting data

We realize that this is a bit of a pipe dream for we will never be able to do all of this in one year. We plan to have a working prototype. We are feverishly working to figure out the details- more on that in coming posts.

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