interactive keys

Kevin Thiele K.Thiele at CBIT.UQ.EDU.AU
Tue Mar 14 08:02:45 CST 2006

>From Alessandra Batptisa

>A piece of advice I have for the ones who want to build their own
>interactive keys: even if you use LUCID to publish your key, build your
>database in DELTA, and only export it to LUCID when it is time to publish
>the key. Delta allows for better control of the database, and helps you to
>avoid stupid mistakes and build a more consistent database.
>Yes, you will have to learn two programs rather than only one. It will pay
>off though.

Two brief comments on this (not designed to get into a large debate about
the relative merits of different programs)

1. Alessandra's comment is a good one in one way - it's an excellent idea to
make use of whatever platform suits for whatever purpose, and move data
between them as necessary (see point 2 below). However, there is one problem
with the DELTA data format (with respect to interactive identification)
which works against Alessandra's solution. With respect to IntKey, DELTA
only allows you to record whether a character state is present or absent in
a taxon (or uncertain for the whole character). Lucid is much richer in this
respect (it allows a character state to be scored
present/absent/rare/uncertain/not scored/present-by-misinterpretation). The
last of these is very important - if you have a state that is actually
absent in a taxon but a user may misinterpret it as present (or vice versa),
then using DELTA you have only two choices - code for the strict truth (in
which case most users will go astray here) or encode false data (clearly a
bad idea). Think of a key that includes Euphorbia and has characters like
petals:present/absent flowers:bisexual/unisexual. This circumstance (when
you want to pre-empt a likely user mistake but maintain the integrity of the
data while doing it) is very common in keys, and is pretty much the only
reason why I advise people against using DELTA to build interactive keys.
Many DELTA data sets have false data recorded in them because of this
problem, and in my experience these false data are virtually unrecoverable.

2. The Structure of Descriptive Data (SDD) standard (an initiative of TDWG)
is designed to allow descriptive data to be transported freely between
different platforms, hopefully +/- losslessly. SDD is a platform-independent
XML schema that captures most of the good features of most of the
interactive identification/descriptive data programs. Proprietorial data
formats have bedeviled this field in the past, and SDD may help solve that -
at least, if the main programs become SDD compliant and allow import/export
of SDD documents. For more information, see

Cheers - k

-----Original Message-----
From: Taxacom Discussion List [mailto:TAXACOM at LISTSERV.NHM.KU.EDU] On Behalf
Of Alessandra R. Batptista
Sent: Tuesday, 14 March 2006 3:24 AM
Subject: Re: [TAXACOM] interactive keys

Chris, the "public" does not come to our door no matter what we do.
However, I'm affraid that those who pointed out that people do not use the
interactive keys do have a point. We are currently doing our 3rd key, two
have been available online for over 6 months:
I have never received any comments, corrections or acknowledgement of
usage from anyone. My best guess is that people don't use them.
A piece of advice I have for the ones who want to build their own
interactive keys: even if you use LUCID to publish your key, build your
database in DELTA, and only export it to LUCID when it is time to publish
the key. Delta allows for better control of the database, and helps you to
avoid stupid mistakes and build a more consistent database.
Yes, you will have to learn two programs rather than only one. It will
pay off though.
Alessandra Rung

On Fri, 10 Mar 2006, Mike Dallwitz wrote:

> Christian Thompson wrote:
>> I would like to see the public embrace interactive keys. But having
>> produced
>> one (fruit fly key in Intkey and Lucid) ... I am sorry to say after 8
>> the Public has not come to my door.
> Anita Cholewa wrote:
>> With respect to the public and online interactive keys ...  if it's not
>> simple to use they'll leave the site quickly.
> Lyn Craven wrote:
>> For producers of interactive keys, the Windows version of DELTA is a lot
>> easier to use than the original. ... If I can use an interactive package
>> produce a key, anyone can.
> It is harder (both technically and taxonomically) to _produce_ an
> interactive key than to use one. But, as Lyn points out, producing
> interactive keys with modern software is not particularly difficult,
> technically.
> The technical basics of using Intkey for identification are extremely
> and intuitive.
> (1) The available characters are automatically displayed in the 'best'
> for identification. Click on any character.
> (2) The character states, with illustrations if available, are displayed.
> Click on a state and press OK (or Cancel if you decide you don't want to
> the character after all).
> (3) Repeat until only one taxon remains.
> Most other interactive-key programs are not quite this easy to use, but
> not much more difficult. Even young children can do it if the characters
> simple enough (see, for example, 'Butterflies and Moths: Demonstration of
> Interactive Key'
> Unfortunately, if you want to make the _most effective_ use of interactive
> identification, you need a program with certain features (see 'Principles
> Interactive Keys', and,
> horror of horrors, you need to learn a few techniques. The most important
> are:-
> (1) Use the characters near the top of the 'best' list, unless you have a
> reason for doing otherwise.
> (2) If you are uncertain which state applies to your specimen, select all
> the states that you think might apply, or use another character. Don't
> except as a last resort. (This is particularly difficult for people who
> used to conventional keys, where guessing is an important part of the
> procedure.)
> (3) Check your identification against the available material (e.g. full or
> diagnostic descriptions, illustrations). If it seems to be incorrect,
> increase the error tolerance and continue the identification as before.
> (4) If you used error tolerance to reach an identification, press the
> provided (in Intkey) to find out what your mistake was (or, possibly, what
> the mistake in the database was).
> This is not rocket science - you would think that anyone could learn it in
> few minutes. But apparently they can't or won't.
> Extracting information from a database is just as easy, but people are
> reluctant to do so, preferring to try to extract it laboriously from
> natural-language descriptions generated from the database. This is such a
> problem that we now place a warning at the bottom of each description,
> the following lines.
> "This description is offered for casual browsing only. We strongly advise
> against extracting comparative information from it. This is much more
> achieved using the interactive key, which allows access to the character
> list, illustrations, full and partial descriptions, diagnostic
> differences and similarities between taxa, lists of taxa exhibiting
> specified attributes, summaries of attributes within groups of taxa,
> geographical distribution, genera included in each family, classifications
> (Dahlgren; Dahlgren, Clifford, and Yeo; Cronquist; APG), and notes on the
> APG classification."
> It remains to be seen whether this will have any effect.
> --
> Mike Dallwitz
> Contact information:
> DELTA home page:

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