electronic publication

Timothy Rowe rowe at MAIL.UTEXAS.EDU
Sat Apr 22 14:55:32 CDT 1995

Several recent messages bring up the valid point that electronic data
formats will inevitably change, and that eventually we may have to convert
our current generation of digital archives into those newer formats if we
are to continue to read them.

However, these messages overlook a more significant point, which is that the
real cost in time and labor is in the digitizing process - in converting
analog records like old monographs or in generating new digital information.
 Once the data are stored in digital format, it is trivial to convert them
to some other format provided that reasonable choices were made in picking
the initial data format.  Moreover, as desktop computer speed increases and
software improves, conversion between older and newer data formats will
probably be done "on the fly" as files are loaded into RAM or sent to
screen.  Many document, graphics, and database applications already convert
on the fly when loading older versions of files, and the marketplace offers
high incentives for software developers to continue to make platform and
file formats transparent.

Yes, CD-ROMs will inevitably go extinct (the forcasts I have seen now
predict a lifespan of 10 to 30 years).  But they will be replaced by other
digital storage media, and the marketplace will surely drive that
replacement with an eye toward backward compatability.  'Digital' is the key
word in the information age, and while digital data will surely bring their
own incidious problems, we should never have to repeat our current painful
campain of data conversion from 'analog' formats.  There is every reason to
charge ahead in bringing all information relevant to Natural History into
digital formats.

I might add that I published a monograph on CD-ROM in 1993, together with
Bill Carlson and Bill Bottorff.  It includes about 1000 high resolution Xray
CT images of the fossil synapsid Thrinaxodon (Vertebrata:Amniota) along with
a dozen animations of consecutive CT slices and other imagery.  Also
included on the disc are digital editions of all the old literature on
Thrinaxodon and several new articles.  Converting the old literature (about
300 pages) was by far the most labor-intensive part of the whole process,
although building the interface that links all these data was also very time
consuming.  The first edition of this disc was build with a DOS interface
that makes some unfortunate hardware requirements which a lot of potential
users can't meet.  But as an afterthought I put copies of all the datafiles
into a separate archive directory on the CD, and this turned out to be the
most useful part of the disc.  DOS, Mac and UNIX users can access all the
data from the archive directory because I chose popular file formats (.TIF
and .TGA for imagery; .FLC and .FLI for animations; ascii and Word .DOC for
text), regardless of whether they have the hardware to run the DOS interface
program.  I am now in the last throws of building a new Windows interface
for Thrinaxodon and, like the first interface, this is a laborious process
because it requires a lot of thought on how to link files, and then building
and testing the links (current authoring software packages offer little more
than 'stone tools' for building interfaces).  But it was a lot easier than
building the first disc because all of the datafiles were archived in a more
or less orderly fashion that I could import directly into the new interface.

The point here is that we can anticipate that a lot of future effort will
have to go into the design and construction of new data interfaces.  The
interface is where value is added by the expert, where data interpretations
can be presented, where data can be synthesized in creative ways.  Interface
design will evolve as computer power increases and as new authoring systems
and visualization software are marketed.  But if we are thoughtful today
about how the original datafiles are digitally archived, we will only have
to suffer the costly conversion process once.

Tim Rowe
Timothy Rowe
Department of Geologicl Sciences
The University of Texas at Austin
Austin, Texas 78712

phone: 512-471-1725
fax: 512-471-9425

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