More on iPads “In The Trenches”

ReadWriteWeb published an article yesterday entitled, iPad at Pompeii: Does Tech Really Revolutionize How We Seek the Past? They discuss the recent featured article on Apple’s website, chronicling the experience of archeologists using iPads for documentation on site at Pompeii. RWW asks the following:

But is handing out a half dozen tablet computers to archaeologists really “revolutionizing how scientists work in the field”? Or is Apple overselling what their products can do for us in our search for a greater understanding of our own voyage? Is it perhaps more true to say that the iPad, a 21st century tabulae ceratae, is extending and amplifying what remains essentially the same undertaking that occupied Giuseppe Fiorelli 150 years ago?

In his article, Curtis Hopkins included comments from John Wallrodt, Senior Research Associate in the Department of Classics at the University of Cincinnati, who worked with the team in Pompeii. According to Wallrodt, some of the techniques employed using the iPads were previously tested using iPhones. Unfortunately the size of the iPhone proved to be ineffective.

And although Apple does make a compelling case study based on the experience of the archeologists, there were some drawbacks that should be taken into account. Most notably, “a ‘steep learning curve’ for the supervisors assigned the devices.”

Previously, I’ve written about the use of iPads by construction experts and the potential for dramatic change in how those of us in construction consulting carry out our work. In a comment on the article at RWW, I mentioned some concerns that I had: durability of the device in less than clean environments, the learning curve for adoption of the technology, and lack of specific applications. In addition, I agreed that the driving factor in iPads and similar devices replacing “the ubiquitous clipboard” for field researchers is time – the less time required to get data from the field into a usable format, the better. Hopkins responded with additional information from Dr. Steven Ellis (the director of the University of Cincinnati team featured in Apple’s profile):

  1. yes, it is nothing less than a revolution. It is a word I chose carefully, and it comes from an academic who is actually using these things, not a marketing person trying to sell them. Why a revolution? Well, simply, it brought the digital world of what we do directly into the trench. Any archeologist who has spent a career using pencil and paper in a trench will tell you the same – to do all of our work, and so very much more, directly into a computer represents a massive leap forward. Quite apart from the time saved – which, I must add from the perspective of a dig director, is immeasurably valuable in terms of economic and human resources – the ability to record so many more things, and so much better and more clearly, and to then have access to that and other datasets is why I used the term ‘revolution’. Find any archaeologist who has actually USED an iPad on a site (not just thought about it), and they will doubtless agree.
  2. No, teh dust and dirt really didn’t pose too much of a problem. Certainly no greater issue there than using a digital camera (or any camera, for that mater) on a dig. In fact, they were much more enclosed than a camera or phone or some such device. I don’t remember anyone dropping one, but suspect that might have happened from time to time. Even so, none were damaged from such an event. Whether that was luck or not I cannot say! But that kind of issue was the last thing on our minds.

In the end, it comes down to value. Technology for the sake of technology, does not provide real value. Reducing bottlenecks that impede providing quality service provides a significant return on investment if (and only if) the result is greater value to the end user/client/stakeholder. If, as Dr. Ellis indicates, that technology also allows for capturing higher levels of detail, it creates a win-win situation. In which case, I would agree with Dr. Ellis’ choice of words: revolution is not an understatement.

Update: Another commenter on RWW’s article, Tom Goskar, expanded on the topic at his blog, with some of his own personal experience with handheld devices for archeological research in the field. He also mentions the topic of application availability/interoperability, and similar concerns regarding environmental factors. Most interestingly, he proposes a very novel idea of networking such devices on site for collaboration and synchronization of data collection. Clearly, we are on the precipice of significant change…