Dafydd Gibbon, Universität Bielefeld

Fieldwork Computing: PDA applications

The present contribution reports on the use of a ubiquitous ultra-mobile device, a Palm PDA, for a number of fieldwork tasks since 1998, the most important of which are interview prompting and metadata collection. A PDA is not a fully adequate substitute for a laptop, particularly where large screen operations for word processing signal processing are required, but modern PDAs include networking, mass storage and audio facilities, and can perform many of the tasks normally performed on a laptop, but more cheaply and (an important criterion for participant observer situations) inconspicuously.

Ubiquitous computing has become a multifunctional buzzword in the past half-decade, standing for portability, interoperability, platform-independence, open access, accessibility, e-inclusiveness and many other dimensions of generality in the use of computing facilities. Applied to the fieldwork context, ubiquity has two main dimensions: first, ultra-mobility; second, interoperable resource formats. There are many other more specific issues, of course.

The first criterion, ultra-mobility, encompasses a number of related criteria of usability and ergonomic suitability. Laptops are widely used in the field, with well-known computational linguistic tools such as phonetic annotation and analysis tools auch as Praat, by Boersma and Weenink, or the SIL tools, and SIL's lexicography workbench "Toolbox", as well as other database and word processing utilities. However, laptops require power supplies, which can cause problems in isolated regions, even if adequately proportioned solar panels, or car batteries are available. In the fieldwork context there are many jobs which can be done at least as efficiently by simpler equipment, in particular handheld PDAs, which have a number of advantages in the field, including the following: very light power consumption; low cost (the simpler Palm PDAs for $100 or less are perfectly adequate); small, inconspicuous size, which is advantageous both for transport and storage, and during deployment in the field.

The second criterion, interoperable resource formats, pertains to the interfacing of the resources created by an ultra-mobile device. In the PDA applications on which the present report is based, the two main formats are text (both free and partially structured in terms of lists), and tables (database relations).

The text format is used for a number of purposes. First, pre-prepared texts are used for standardised interviews, for instance word-list and word-field based lexicography, and sentence elicitation. Second, informal note-taking and diary-keeping are necessary further activities, which are easily performed on a PDA, especially if a PDA keyboard is used.

Database formats have two main uses for database formats. The first is, rather obviously for metadata. With a suitable graphical interface, the collation of metadata using drop-down menus, pick lists, and time and date widgets is very efficient and inconspicuous, using stylus and touch-screen, so that the usual inertia involved in metadata collection is reduced to an absolute minimum. The database was pre-structured using a relevant subset of Dublin Core, IMDI and OLAC elements, but enhanced by task-specific metadata categories covering phonetic data (laryngograph recordings for tone measurements, and airflow recordings for obstruent measurements.

The present contribution describes both a coherent concept and architecture for PDA-based ubiquitous computing in the field, and demonstrates the practical use of several of these techniques with different generations of Palm PDA.