Two quick thoughts on Paperless Archaeology

I am absolutely loving John Wallrodt’s exploration of digital workflow over at Paperless Archaeology.  In fact, I liked some of his observations enough to offer a comment and I was pleased to read his response.  Wallrodt’s blog is exploring the implementation of technology at the PARP:PS (Pompeii Archaeological Research Project: Porta Stabia) project. This project received significant attention this past fall for using iPads as one of their primary data collection devices, but they have also used technology in other innovative ways.

Wallrodt’s discussion of “Paperless” archaeology stirred me to think about two crucial and interrelated issues facing any project considering the use of digital technology to replace paper.  These are very tentative observations that are still barely formulated, but they do capture some of my instincts regarding paperless archaeology.

1. What are the specific advantages to a specific digital approach?

In my rush to implement digital “solutions”, I have often overlooked this particularly basic question. For example, collecting survey data on paper and keying it later is not a particular problem for most of the projects on which I have worked.  First, manpower for data entry tends to be relatively abundant (student volunteers, graduate students, various project directors at loose ends).  The process of data entry familiarizes an individual with the data collected over the course of the season.  And the paper copies of data collection forms can easily become digital artifacts while preserving their integrity as physical artifacts.  We scan all of our paper collection forms.  In short, using paper data collection forms in the field do take longer to manage, but this is not a major liability for most of the projects with which I have been associated.  They also have the added bonus of data duplication and they represent a more flexible medium than most basic forms of primary digital collection.

That being said, paper forms do not make it as easy to normalize data coming out of the field. A trench supervisor or survey team leader can record data in any way he or she wants.  So, for example, in a box for “Percent Visible” a survey team reader can write “kalamboki”.  This obviously creates problems. A digital form could easily prevent this kind of error or tomfoolery.  At the same time, there are obvious limits to even how digital forms can prevent data issues.  There would be no way for a form to correct a the entry of an incorrect number, for example, as long as it fell within the plausible range of responses.  Proofreading of field data collection sheets is a time-consuming, boring, and frustrating project, but it will always be necessary whether the sheets are paper or digital.  The kinds of normalization errors that I have seen most frequently occur at the stage of in-field data collection are often the most easily caught either by the human eye or digital means.  Of course, economies of scale become significant here as data sets become larger and more complex.  I am fairly certain that the quantity of data coming out of a project like PARP:PS is larger than the quantity of data that we produced at PKAP, for example. So, normalization at the point of data collection may have significant advantages.

Issues of curation of paper and digital artifacts are, of course, always a concern and there are real benefits to collecting data in digital form, implementing some kind of version control, and instantly saving it in many places. There remain serious issues, however, with the infrastructure necessary for the long-term and responsible curation of digital data. Of course, digital data can be saved down in paper form, but again, there isn’t a massive savings of time or energies here.

To be clear, I am not advocating against the use of digital analysis in archaeology or even the systematic collection of data in digital form. I think that an increasingly digital workflow is the way forward in archaeology.  On the other hand, I am still struggling to position our digital workflow in way to reap the maximum benefits. As I imagine future projects, I imagine that I will remain committed to primary data collection in the field in paper, but I am open to being convinced otherwise.

2. How is digital data different?

I have thought about the second issue in greater length here.  One thing I am constantly wondering about is how does our increasingly digitized present change the kind of data that we collect (in our every day lives). Our interaction with technology changes our patterns of thought, conditions our every day rituals, and transforms the creative and interpretative potential of our research.  Digital data collection produces different data.

My Point 1 considers the specific benefits of digital data collection in terms of real digital workflow; this point makes both a more simple and more complex observation.  Notebooks and paper forms represent  a particular relationship between the individual collecting information and the archaeological context.  Digital data collection changes this relationship and, as an extension, the kind of data produced and preserved.  Of course, there is nothing universal about digital data collection and production (any more than there are simple and universal features associated with notebook style data collection and production), but I am convinced that certain features of digital data capture are consistent enough to allow us to generalize about them as an approach.

What are they, you might ask? Well, I am still trying to get that sorted and I hope the John Wallrodt’s detailed discussion of his own implementation of a robust digital practice with PARP:PS will help!

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