Dr. Fee (Washington and Jefferson College) has now completed a series of posts on the technical aspects of designing and implementing “PKapp” at the 2012 Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project blog:
In previous posts (here and here), I wrote about our use of iPads in the “History and Archaeology of Cyprus” course I taught this summer. In this post, I will discuss the use of PKapp in the field. I will follow with a couple of other posts on our use of the iPads more generally.
Messiah College gave us 13 total iPads for use with our course. Nine were assigned to students, who used them for a range of purposes, some of which I’ve already discussed (here and here). Four of the iPads were assigned to trench supervisors responsible for our four different “excavation units”. These were iPads strictly used for the field, and they contained a minimal set of apps: Find iPhone in case the device went missing; Dropbox for transferring files, photos, etc..; a PDF reader; “Files” and “FileApp Pro” for storing PDFs and documents related to our work on Cyprus (see below), and most importantly, “PKapp” the PKAP app designed by Sam Fee and labeled according to the Excavation Unit number (in the case below “EU 15”). We initially considered using all 13 iPads in the field, but this seemed too involved, and students generally did not bring their own iPad into the field.
In archaeological fieldwork, most especially excavation, recording is among the most important responsibilities of the fieldworker. As excavation destroys the contexts that it removes, the finds (artifacts) and the notes are the only material for reconstructing the occupations being investigated. The goal always is to record detail sufficient for understanding finds in their natural and cultural contexts (strata).
You can understand, then, both our excitement and hesitation about using these iPads in the field. On the one hand, iPads could offer new ways to improve our note-taking through, for example, devices like the camera and video, and apps for recording audio and visual notes. On the other hand, we were terrified at the many ways we might lose our information and electronic data. We did not want to leave Cyprus with nothing to show for our work. Our solution was to treat the PKAP 2012 season as an experimental year for using iPads in the field. Initially, in our modified excavation manual, we put it as follows:
We will record the excavation process according to the basic unit of the stratum (SU) and describe as we excavate. We will collect data in two ways in 2012: 1) A volunteer will fill out a standardized SU form for each new SU (see below) and 2) the trench supervisor will collect the same data via an iPad designated for the SU. The iPad will contain the master version of the data, the paper copy the backup. It is important for the supervisor to bring both SU forms and the trench iPad into the field each day, and the supervisor should charge the iPad each night.
After some discussion with co-director, Bill Caraher, however, we changed the language of this section so that the paper version would be the master and the iPad the backup. The trench supervisor or his proxy would record the master set of notes in paper version, while the students would record the backup using the PKapp on the iPad. In the end, for reasons we will discuss below, we were very glad we did it this way.
In Excavation Unit 15 (below), trench supervisor Aaron Barth keeps the master paper notebook in the red clipboard while David Crout records with the iPad.
In Excavation Unit 14, trench supervisor and field director Brandon Olson advises students Megan Piette and Jimmie Nelson on how to fill out forms. Megan uses the iPad while Jimmie records the same information with the paper.
In both cases, our paper forms and iPad PKapp recorded nearly identical information on each “Stratigraphic Unit,” the basic spatial for recording stratigraphic contexts.
Our paper form for recording contexts consists of two pages. The first page asks the recorder to write information about the context including name and identifiers (date, supervisor, recorder), location (area, excavation unit, elevation, stratigraphic relationships, UTM coordinates), soil descriptors (soil type, clast size, munsell color), associated data (features and photographs), method, and relative quantity of finds (by bag).
The second page simply contains identifying fields (in case the page becomes separated from the first) and blank lines for description and interpretation. The recorder can use as many of these description pages as necessary to record the context.
As Sam Fee has described it, the PKapp on the iPad was designed to duplicate the same information collected on paper form. So, in the image below, one can see some parallels with the image of the paper form above.
Like any other app requiring text, selecting inside any field brought up the keyboard for keying the data.
You will notice in the description field above “See hard copy.” In this instance, this SU description marks a complete duplicate of the hard copy—and the trench supervisor (Crowley) recorded it in this way because in this small trench, he was responsible for both the digital and paper form. Generally, though, we did not attempt to duplicate the “Description” field because we felt that this field allowed us to record two distinct interpretations of each stratigraphic unit. And each interpretation could inform the other.
A major advantage of the digital version is that it forced the recorder to enter data in standardized ways and did not allow (as the paper version did) for inconsistency in entering certain fields. For example, the fields related to soils required the user choose one of several options from a list rather than try to remember what the options were. This ensured a more normalized data set.
Clicking the “Load SU Data” allowed the user to revisit data from previous SUs. This was extremely useful in comparing SUs in the field. However, the continual improvement of the PKapp during the field season meant that a couple of new versions were issued after fieldwork was already underway. Each new version required wiping the iPad of its previous data (after backing up the data). We were not, consequently, able to pull up SUs of previous versions. Note that the data for EU 14 below starts with SU 5107, but it does not contain 5101-5106 (we did have these in paper form). Perhaps a future version of PKapp could reimport data back into the PKapp.
We encouraged trench supervisors to back up their iPad frequently whenever a connection was available. Our simple wireless iPads required a wireless connection at the hotel, and data was backed up less frequently than we would have liked. In one case, I could not get a good wireless connection to backup the data. Having iPads with 3G would have allowed us to do this from the field at the end of each day.
Backing up data was a two-step process. Touch the “Export these data” button, which converts all the data into CSV format. Then touch the “Email the data” button.
…which resulted in this confirmation screen.
Only in one case did this process result in data loss, but the details of this loss are too cloudy to be sure that the app was to blame.
We also lost data once or twice at a different stage of the data recording process, when a student forgot to hit the “Record the Data” button while collecting data on the SU. That was unfortunate but not unexpected. All the same, we were glad that our iPad was the backup in this first season using them and that we had the paper version to go along with them.
Besides the PKapp, we also used the iPads in the field for several other purposes. We used the devices to take photographs, to circulate files (via Dropbox), and to load files. It was extremely useful, for example, to have the SU Form Guide for filling out the SU forms at the touch of a button. Same with the instructions for describing features and soils. In the past, we have had to drag out the entire paper version of the field manual, which is a hassle to look through on an afternoon when the coastal winds are powerful.
In the end, collecting data via the PKapp was easy and worked remarkably well. We have some hiccups to work out in regard to data preservation, but our use this season did not result in major losses.
In Thursday’s post, I’ll continue this series with a discussion of the practical dimensions of using iPads in the field.