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Beach combing for data

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Felix Grant finds that he can travel light, even with a heavy burden of data.

In the last issue of Scientific Computing World, my article on shareware software for the science professional on the move was concerned with calculation. This time, it's data management. A life on the open road, braving the rolling deep, or just working in a corner between meetings, is fine; but, these days, everything grinds to a halt without information and ways to handle it.

For the happy wanderer, information comes in two kinds: static, taken along purely for reference; and dynamic, generated, extended, or modified en route. In either case, transfer between desktop and handheld must be as hassle-free as possible and, allowing for difference of context, handling applications should ideally mimic those familiar on the desktop. In practice, there are four basic ways in which these requirements can be met.

First is online access; all current hand-held devices support some kind of browser. For reasons dealt with last time, I'm mainly restricting my specifics to the PalmOS platform, but PocketPC and Symbian devices also offer connectivity to the web. Two issues limit this option. Connection speed is fine if you are somewhere that allows you to access a landline, but satphone or cellphone (even GPRS) transfer rates don't compare with the slowest and scratchiest landline dial up. The other consideration is screen size; trying to read most standard web pages on a screen the size of a credit card or smaller is, to be blunt, a daft idea. That doesn't mean that the concept should be rejected, though; with a little thought, web pages for essential read-only information updates can easily be designed to suit a hand held display.

Next step up is the packaged document: a desktop document is converted to a handheld format, which can then be consulted using a companion reader. The idea is familiar on the desktop, particularly through Adobe's PDF file format; Adobe, in fact, offers a free PDF-to-PalmOS converter and reader of its own. For more flexibility and, to be honest, better performance than the Adobe solution offers, there are a number of other solutions out there; most of them following the Adobe philosophy of a desktop 'distiller' and readers for the various handheld platforms. Good representatives are iSolo and RepliGo; they have different strengths and, as with calculators, there is no need to restrict yourself to just one.

At the time of writing, RepliGo offers free readers for Palm OS, Pocket PC, and three smartphones. It also offers one for the Windows PC, so you can distribute the same document to handhelds, laptops, and desktops, with a consequent gain in efficiency. Document conversion is done through a purchased printer driver that works from any Windows application that can print to paper, or from a toolbar button in supported applications. PDFs exported to Repligo are far more responsive than those produced by Adobe's own offering. You can see an exact representation of the paper document and drag it around behind a virtual viewport or, at the tap of the stylus, flow the text to fit the screen. Whichever way you choose to view, scale between 10 per cent and 300 per cent to suit your screen and the nature of the content.

While RepliGo will faithfully reproduce single web pages, for full HTML structures iSolo is a better solution. Once again, there is a desktop/handheld pair - this time it's the desktop half (iSoloX) that comes free, while you purchase the reader. A complete website or selected pages, from disk or online, can be rapidly compiled into a single, handheld file complete with links, graphics, and fonts. This is a very good way to carry a coherent body of static material - store it (or allow your usual generators to maintain it) online, and move a copy onto the handheld before departure. It also works well with the online reference method; iSolo gives instant access to a version that was current at the time of transfer, and occasional connection to the net allows checking for changes. Particularly useful in this context is the ability to automate document updates.

These methods sound expensive on storage space, but the files can be stored on solid-state expansion cards and are, in any case, smaller than you might expect. A test reference web site comprising roughly 400,000 characters spread across 30 hyperlinked pages arrived on the handheld as an iSolo file of 336Kb. RepliGo rendered fourteen A4 pages of full colour technical specifications, with intensive use of tables, columns and graphics, at a shade under 250Kb. From there, the next jump is to special-case structured information. Products which store information in proprietary formats are legion, but most of us use source and reference databases. If you keep this sort of material in a generic DBMS, just transfer it to a handheld equivalent (two are discussed below); but if you use a dedicated bibliographic manager, it's less straightforward. There are read-only options: output as HTML then consult online and via iSolo, or generate a handheld copy using RepliGo. But how to deal with references picked up on your travels: from libraries, conference papers and those magazines found only in dentists' waiting rooms? Users of BiblioScape or EndNote can try their handheld utilities before deciding whether to look further - EndNote's is bundled, BiblioScape's is a free download. One solution is use of text input/output facilities on the desktop product, converting to a generic database form and back; I use this method, courtesy of a bespoke utility. Finally, you can look at a product like BookBag; this is a handheld bibliography manager which, in its 'plus' version, has a companion desktop handler offering CSV import and export. BookBag is designed for readers rather than working scientists, but take a look at it with an imaginative eye and see what it can do for you.

Which leaves dynamic material in generic applications. Spreadsheets (universally synchronising to Excel files) often come bundled with the machine, but it's worth looking at alternatives. If you use complex formulae, SheetToGo (part of DocumentsToGo) is a front-runner; but if you rely on scatter-graphing of sampled data, QuickSheet (part of QuickOffice, like Excel, available separately) does it better. There are others, TinySheet being one particularly well established example. A major weakness of all handheld spreadsheets is a paucity of import and export options in the field. Personally (many colleagues strongly disagree), I increasingly replace handheld spreadsheets with a combination of database managers and calculators (such as PDAcalc and PowerOneGraph) which can import and export data as text files. Word or text processors (synchronising with Word files or Outlook notes, respectively) are fairly quickly dealt with; there are lots of them, and they all do a good job of maintaining reports, notebooks, and similar textual information compiled in the field. People like me have our favourites (mine is WordSmith, from Blue Nomad); but most users are perfectly well served by the one which came with the bundled suite on their machine.

Handheld database managers come in several types and flavours, but the fundamental division is between flat file and relational. Relationality varies in degree and there is a range of methods; good representatives of the two poles, however, are JFile and HanDBase.

JFile is at the flat file end of the scale (though it does allow popup fields to call data from other files); the emphasis is on fast, solid, uncomplicated handling of single data tables. Fields include subtypes allowing strings, for instance, to be specified as short or long (corresponding to text and memo types in Access), date and time to be user-entered or to reflect record creation or modification, and so on. All field types can be preset with a default value. There is a calculated field as well, though with a restricted repertoire - four arithmetic functions operating on either two fields (from the current or previous record) or one field and a fixed value. Time and date values can be used for calculation, but the result will not be formatted to match; text fields can be concatenated by addition.

HanDBase is a bigger, more complex, all-singing and dancing product. It has true relational methods; not just looking up data from other tables, but keeping the result live so that it changes to reflect modifications. The calculated field type allows moderately complex constructs of multiple field values and a choice of mathematical functions comparable to a basic scientific calculator, though text concatenation requires one of several 'plugins'. Transparent transfer between PalmOS and PocketWindows versions is worth considering.

The right choice is something to consider carefully. A lot of apparently peripheral factors come into handheld software selection, and I can't even begin to summarise their variety here. Both products offer sorts and filters that can be stored and loaded with the data; JFile fully utilises the landscape mode on the Palm T3 machine to maximise information shown at a glance; HanDBase has a form designer allowing more flexible use of the standard screen.

Most handheld DBMS offer a desktop companion but need an extra product to move data to and from your usual desktop product. HanDBase offers separately purchasable routines for Access, Filemaker and ODBC. JFile provides a basic CSV converter but otherwise leaves the desktop to third party products, of which there are several - the dominant one being JFTrans. JFTrans is a standalone flat-file PC DBMS, which creates, reads and writes Access-compatible MDB files or JFile PDBs, with the additional facility to create from other sources (notably Excel files).

As with calculators, the handheld encourages mix and match data-handling. My personal choice is one DBMS for most dynamic handheld data and much of the static as well, with maintained licences on two others for particular purposes, backed up by two distiller/reader pairs for specific purposes. But that's me; there are plenty of itinerant scientists who would advise you differently. Products mentioned here have fully functional trial downloads available, so look around and make your choice - or mix and match to get the best of several methods.


Sources used for this article

Adobe Systems Inc: Adobe Reader for PalmOS (freeware)

BiblioScape: BiblioPalm (freeware)

ISI-Researchsoft: EndNote for Palm Devices (bundled)

PalmGear: Supplies PalmOS products including BookBag, DocumentsToGo, JFile, JFTrans, HanDBase, iSolo, QuickOffice, QuickSheet, Repligo, SheetToGo, Wordsmith (all shareware)

PocketGear: Supplies PocketWindows products