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Digital Data Handling

Web Sites are Programs (2/10/97)
Digital Data Handling (2/25/97)
Geosciences, the Web, & GIS (8/5/96)

Geoscience investigations are invariably inefficient. They start with data collection in the field, often in remote locations. These data are then transferred to the office, where they are analyzed and interpreted. Finally, the data and interpretations must be presented in meaningful manner to properly communicate the results of the investigation.

Most often, field data are collected by hand and written in notebooks. Data manipulation and analyses are often performed with computers. This requires that the field data are transcribed into a format that can be easily input into computer programs. Finally, the data and interpretations are usually communicated via paper documents that include maps and other figures.

As a result, geoscience data typically goes through several transformations, from hand written notes to digital information to printed figures and text. Each of these transformations takes time and reduces the efficiency of the investigation. If the data are time dependent, this inefficiency can greatly reduce the impact of your data. At the same time, the data transformations introduce the potential for transcription errors.

It is pretty clear that future investigations will attempt to avoid these in limitations by avoiding paper-based data where ever possible. Data will be collected in the field on hand held computers. These field computers will automatically update site databases via wireless connections. Once the data are in the site database, they can be validated, analysed, and interpreted. Figures and maps will be generated from the data and incorporated with text that is presented in a digital format at a web site.

I refer to this type of scenario as a digital data handling system. Data are entered directly into a digital format and remain in that format through analysis and presentation. Paper-based documents are used at a minimum, for Chain of Custody (COC) records to travel with chemical samples or for final hard copy reports. With the use of digital signatures, even paper based COC's and final reports may be unnecessary.

This is not a far fetched idea. ES Designs has working models for field data collection. These systems allow geoscientists to record field data on computers or "PDAs" and instantly update site databases via the Internet. Once in the site database, data can be exported for analysis by a variety computer tools ranging from spreadsheets to GIS. Most text and graphics in reports and other presentations are generated on computers, after incorporating the results of the data analyses. Converting these documents to HTML allows the production of a dynamic document that is far easier to distribute than static, paper documents.

ES Designs is developing tools for both ends of a digital data handling system. At the front end, our field data collection tools provide a platform for collecting data in a digital format in the field. At the back end, our "webGIS" tools can be used to provide interactive presentations within a web-based document. In the future, ES Designs will be producing tutorials, lectures, and field trips to display the types of dynamic presentations available on a web-based platform.

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by Tom Clifton, © 1997 ES Designs