DELTA data entry/editing

Mike Dallwitz miked at ENTO.CSIRO.AU
Tue Mar 21 18:52:45 CST 1995

                                                                 21 March 1995

> From: Adolf Ceska <aceska at FREENET.VICTORIA.BC.CA>
> I can see that the main stumbling block in the use of DELTA programs is the
> preparation of input files (CHARS, ITEMS, SPECS, etc.).

Yes, it is the main stumbling block, but not the main DIFFICULTY. The
mechanics of preparing these files can be learned in an hour or two (for those
who know what directories and files are and can use a text editor). Designing
character lists and recording data in such a way that the maximum benefits can
be derived from them is an art which takes years to learn, and which will not
be made substantially easier by better software. In many ways it will get
harder because of the new features which will be added to the software. You
will have observed this effect with, for example, word processors and image
editors. You may say that that is all very well for publishers and graphic
artists, but that you would be perfectly happy with a much simpler, rough and
ready word processor (all the same, you probably don't use one!). But as a
taxonomist, are you going to be satisfied with simple, rough and ready storing
and processing of your laboriously gathered data?

> To prepare these files is a painful process, almost as complicated as
> solving the RUBIK CUBE. If you make a small change in CHARS file (add or
> delete a character), you have to make endless changes in the ITEMS file and
> other files.

I suppose that even those who haven't used DELTA will realize that this is an
exaggeration, but may not realize how gross. If you add a character, in most
cases you need only make a single change in the `specifications' file, namely,
to increase the number of characters by 1. You may also need to specify the
type of the character (if not unordered multistate), and its number of states
(if greater than 2). The `endlessness' of the changes in the ITEMS file (the
`data matrix') will, of course, be directly proportional to the number of taxa
which have to be coded for the new character, as would be true whatever the

Just for fun, I timed myself in adding a new character to a data set. It took
about 40 seconds to update the characters and specifications files. I tried
two ways of adding the new data to the ITEMS file. (1) Write an editor macro
to help: 60 seconds to devise and enter the macro, 1.5 seconds per taxon to
enter the data. (2) Straightforward editing (cursor to right place, enter the
data): 7 seconds per taxon.

An inexperienced user would, of course, take longer, but the time would still
be negligible (or should be) compared with the time taken to think about the
new character and to get the new data. Also, the time will be paid back
manyfold, both to the author and the end users, by the facilities provided by
the programs once the data are there.

I must emphasize that I am not trying to say that the mechanical difficulties
of using the current DELTA programs are a good thing - I'm just trying to put
them in perspective. We intend to address the problems, but it's not possible
to do everything overnight. Users are suffering from the legacy of the
mainframe systems on which the programs were first developed, but are
benefiting from the functionality arising from 20 years of development and
feedback from users.

> I have not had chance to compare performance of XID and INTKEY, but I
> don't think one will be significantly better than the other.

I haven't seen XID, but you are almost certainly wrong. We have been
developing INTKEY, on the basis of feedback from numerous users with serious
data sets, for 12 years. Development started when our experience with an early
version of Richard Pankhurst's ONLINE showed that it was inadequate in many
ways. Nevertheless, that early ONLINE was superior in functionality to many of
the interactive identification programs being written today.

The first step in evaluating XID or any other such program should be to
compare it with the list of criteria that I posted earlier. If you think that
some of these are not really necessary, please say so, and I will attempt to
justify them. More criteria could certainly be added, and I will do so as
these are brought to my attention.

A proper test of such programs is difficult. It's not much use pretending to
do an identification, or identifying something when you already know the
answer. Experimentation would be necessary, along the lines of

Fermanian, T. W., Barkworth, M., and Liu, H. (1989). Trained and untrained
individual's ability to identify morphological characters of immature grasses.
Agron. J. 81, 918-22.

> One thing DELTA definitively needs is an easier method of how to enter
> taxonomical data.

Richard Pankhurst and Eric Gouda have programs for editing DELTA data, and we
are about to start writing one ourselves.

> Can DELTA people approach the XID Services, and ask them to provide an
> interface between XID input and DELTA input?

The description of DELTA is in the public domain, and anyone is free to write
programs to import or export it. For sufficiently popular software (e.g. PAUP,
MacClade, Hennig86), we also provide the ability to transform DELTA data into
other formats.

> Both XID and DELTA would benefit from such a marriage.

I agree, and even more importantly, taxonomists would benefit by being able to
use their hard-won data with a variety of software.

Mike Dallwitz                                  Internet md at
CSIRO Division of Entomology                   Fax +61 6 246 4000
GPO Box 1700, Canberra ACT 2601, Australia     Phone +61 6 246 4075

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