Vol. XII, No. 2

Fall, 1999

FileMaker® Pro At Use In the Field

Harrison Eiteljorg, II

FileMaker Pro (version 4.1) was the database program used at Kinet Höyük, and it may be of interest to readers to learn why that program was used, how well it worked, and what recommendations may be made after spending time with the program.

Several database programs were considered, including Access®, 4th Dimension, FoxPro®, and FileMaker. Of those possibilities, only Access was limited to Windows machines; all the others could run on MACs and PCs. FoxPro was eliminated because, though very competent and an old favorite at CSA, it is a Microsoft product that is not the company's flagship database program (Access is); therefore, the long-term continuance of the program seemed something that one should not rely upon. The choice was narrowed to FileMaker and Access, because 4th Dimension is not as widely sold and has many fewer users, affecting the ability of an excavation to continue using the program with another database designer. In addition, both Access and FileMaker had been used at CSA; they were both known, competent programs.

FileMaker was ultimately chosen because there are versions for the MAC and for Windows. Both MACs and PCs are in use at Kinet Höyük, and a program that runs on both was considered desirable. Otherwise, it would have been more difficult, though by no means impossible, to share data with those scholars working on the site who have MACs. FileMaker was also chosen because Access was nearing another upgrade that involved a file format change - an upgrade that has appeared since the choice was made. (It must also be said that various concerns about Microsoft's policies - specifically the upgrade paths forced on consumers - encouraged the choice of FileMaker.)

In the main, FileMaker proved itself to be fully competent for this job. It is, however, a database management system that takes some getting used to. It is very easy to do a great many things, and one can accomplish a good deal without any programming or serious "under the hood" work. However, a database designed to permit data entry by a variety of people, many of them unfamiliar with computers, must be as nearly goof-proof as possible. Such a database requires programming and considerable tinkering.

FileMaker provided most of the tools needed, and it has some unique features that are quite powerful. Those unique features, precisely because they are unique to FileMaker, require some experience and, in some cases, understanding new and different ways to organize the data - ways that are somewhat unusual. As a result, some experience with FileMaker is desirable before commencing a complex project. That, of course, is true of any database software - indeed, of software of any kind.(1)

One missing feature of interest is the ability to specify what is sometimes called an input mask - a set of general criteria for testing a specific data item as it is entered. For instance, a unique identifier was developed for Kinet Höyük excavation lots. It consisted of the trench name, the locus number in parentheses, and the lot number, as in 99G2(34)123 for trench 99G2, locus 34, lot 123. There seemed to be no way to provide a template that would check the entry of a lot identifier to be sure it met the general requirements of form when the entry was typed in. Only when the user had completed a specific process and was obliged to choose to move on to another process could the system check the data entries, and then the checking process had to be laboriously constructed in a programmed script.

It is not yet possible to comment extensively on the possibilities for making reports with FileMaker. Only two were made for use in the field, and they were both easy to make and effective. More complex reports, though, will be constructed in the coming months, and any unexpected findings will be reported in the Newsletter.(2)

-- Harrison Eiteljorg, II

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(1) FileMaker also includes one feature that I consider rather dangerous. FileMaker permits users to create something called a repeating field - a slot for data that can have multiple entries, each one treated separately. This is tempting to use for the kinds of data produced by archaeology - for instance, colors shown on a pot. One can never anticipate how many colors will appear on a given vase; so preparing many slots in the database is pointless. Permitting only one is also a poor practice, but a repeating field provides one slot with many possible entries, each treated separately. Such a data entry possibility seems very desirable; however, it is to be avoided, because repeating fields cannot be transferred to most other database formats (for a variety of reasons, some technical, some practical, and some theoretical). The same capability can be offered to the user without repeating fields; it is more difficult for the database designer but the user need not see any difference at all. FileMaker does not require the use of repeating fields, and I did not use them. However, those not familiar with the dangers are easily tempted by this seemingly helpful feature. See "How to Transfer Your DOS Database into A Windows 95 Database in 659 Easy Steps," by J. Penny Small, CSA Newsletter, Fall, 1997, for a full discussion of repeating fields.) Return to body.

(2) Using FileMaker for the CSA lantern slide project has made some of the potential of its reports quite apparent. The entire Web page (in HTML code) to present each image is created within FileMaker. It took a couple of days to work out the report properly, but the result has been very helpful. Return to body.

For other Newsletter articles concerning the issues surrounding the use and design of databases, consult the Subject index.

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