Vol. XVII, No. 1
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Spring, 2004

Old Data in New Clothes

Among the most important -- but often most overlooked -- assets of data in digital form is its potential to be repurposed, to be put to use in ways and for purposes not initially intended. Very often that means moving data from one digital format to another, and it often requires familiarity with more than one program and/or program type. The great benefit is that re-typing or otherwise re-entering data is not required. Entering data once is then -- as it should be -- sufficient for many purposes. Not only does that result in saving time and trouble, it reduces the opportunity for errors.

An excellent example of such repurposing of data occurred some years ago when CSA personnel put portions of the Lerna IV pottery information into a database. (See Vol. X,. No. 3; Winter, 1998, "The Lerna Database Experiment," by Susan C. Jones and H. Eiteljorg, II, http://www.csanet.org/newsletter/winter98/nlw9806.html.) Putting the information into a database from the publication was a simple experiment to see how such complex information could be put into a database effectively. A later experiment, though, showed that it was possible to reformat the data from the database and thereby create catalog pages without re-typing anything. (See Vol. XI, No. 2; Fall, 1998, "The Lerna Database Again - Printing a Catalog," by H. Eiteljorg, II and Susan C. Jones, http://www.csanet.org/newsletter/fall98/nlf9805.html.) That was a straight-forward example of translating data in one digital form into another, thereby using the same data in two different forms.

As CSA personnel have worked with the data from the Propylaea survey work carried out in Athens in the fall of 2003, another and somewhat less obvious example of repurposing data was used -- one that has had an enormous impact on the Propylaea work. The process is described in more detail in the companion article, "From Field Data to CAD Model: Modeling the NW wing of the Propylaea," http://www.csanet.org/newsletter/spring04/nls0404.html), but in this context the point of interest is the use/translation of data in a variety of digital forms all aimed at the modeling process in AutoCAD. The starting information available for CSA personnel included the field notes (made in notebooks at the site) and the list of survey coordinates from the total station (recorded in the surveying instrument and expressed in a generalized local coordinate system for the NW wing of the Propylaea), along with the ID numbers recorded for all coordinates. CSA personnel put the information from the field notes into a database. Each observation was linked to the appropriate total station ID number. Thus, for instance, the upper left corner of block number 23 on the east wall might be identified and linked to ID number 40. When the data files with the coordinate information arrived, the coordinates were associated with the generalized coordinate system for the NW wing via the ID number 40.

The coordinates in the database were those generated by the surveyors, using a generalized coordinate system for their work. A coordinate system specifically related to the NW wing of the Propylaea was needed, however. Therefore, the coordinates were entered into AutoCAD (via file-manipulation processes without any re-typing any data), transformed within AutoCAD, and re-exported in a form that could be linked to the data tables. These processes relied upon data manipulation but not data entry. No coordinates needed to be typed.

The database then included the field notes and the coordinates -- both the original coordinates and the transformed ones. A related data table was constructed with AutoCAD commands to generate blocks. All the single-surface blocks were modeled quickly and accurately with the pre-formatted instructions from the database. More than 60 blocks were modeled in this way, and the modeling process took only a few minutes -- and involved no re-typing of data.

For more complex blocks a more circuitous method was used. Data and coordinates about each complex block were exported to a simple word-processing file. Then the appropriate AutoCAD commands could be constructed in the word processing program, copied, and pasted into AutoCAD -- again, without re-typing any data. This was an unexpected use of the database information. The original intent had been to model the simpler blocks only, but, in fact, using the database information, via an intermediate text file, to model the complex blocks was just as helpful.

The point of this all-too-brief explanation of the Propylaea modeling process is simply that data in one form can often be very useful in another. A little careful planning makes it relatively easy to move data from one format to another, making one set of data serve multiple purposes. For this multi-use process to work, however, it is necessary for the scholars using the data to be familiar with all the data systems involved. The Lerna experiment required some familiarity with desktop publishing programs as well as considerable dexterity with database management systems. In the case of the Propylaea work, it was necessary to utilize a word-processing program in a moderately sophisticated way, a spreadsheet with rather complex formulae, a database management system in a very detailed fashion, and AutoCAD at a reasonably comprehensive level. As has often been noted in the CSA Newsletter, such familiarity with multiple program types is not common in archaeology. These examples of using data in multiple forms, though, add emphasis to earlier arguments that computer sophistication among archaeologists can be very desirable.

For other Newsletter articles concerning the The Propylaea Project, applications of CAD modeling in archaeology and architectural history, or the use of electronic media in the humanities, consult the Subject index.

Next Article: It's the Small Things that Count: Digital Preservation and Small Scale Research Projects in the UK

Table of Contents for the Spring, 2004 issue of the CSA Newsletter (Vol. XVII, No. 1)

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