RHOI Informatics

As part of the RHOI's efforts in data standardization in paleontology, the Taphonomy Analytical Working Group, led by Prof. Christiane Denys, has developed a protocol on the collection of taphonomic data from paleontological sites. Click Here to download the protocol and Here to download an excel spreadsheet for data recording.


As originally envisioned, RHOI's success would depend on the coordination of research efforts (field and laboratory) and the sharing of information via electronic technology, with information flow in multiple directions. Initial efforts to implement a flexible, web-based, distributed information infrastructure to serve the needs of paleontologists within and beyond the initiative resulted in a prototype (designed by John Damuth, Ray Bernor, and Henry Gilbert).

The RHOI’s needs presented a technical challenge not met by conventional database approaches in paleontology, which rely on a monolithic central database (ordinarily of faunal lists or stratigraphic ranges) and a traditional client-server model. With the start of the project in 2003, the RHOI canvassed its participants in an effort to gather data that would be assembled and distributed via the latest technology in distributed computing, including peer-to-peer web services, cross-architecture web service platforms, and XML, SOAP, and MySQL/PHP standards.

However, after establishing those mechanisms, our attempts to include the datasets from other projects were less successful, owing to a variety of factors. The most important of these were researcher concerns about priority, pre-publication versus post-publication availability, and institutional constraints. The RHOI continued to work with all its member projects and institutions in order to better understand their informatics infrastructures (often an Excel spreadsheet or handwritten notes) and concerns. Although all projects desired and welcomed access to better-quality specimen-level data, a variety of technical and administrative hurdles prevented universal participation in the single-forum approach originally envisioned for the RHOI.

At the same time, the information technology revolution has moved very fast, outpacing the informatics programs of even the most technologically-progressive projects associated with the RHOI. It is now technologically simple to globally serve large, image-associated databases. However, the barriers to global access linger, and the RHOI has revealed a great deal about the disposition of these barriers within paleoanthropology. In addition to the overemphasized (but still real) issues with priority lies the more basic issue of standardization. The range of different approaches to data management employed by RHOI-affiliated projects was found to be very wide. These differences transcend differences between software or operating preferences, and most of them involved a lack of standardization. At the onset of the RHOI, the use of data fields among projects was disjunct, and this led the RHOI to initiate discussions to establish the range of data acquisition and management practices, and to deliberate on establishing some basic standards that would be helpful in any downstream information sharing programs.

During these communications and deliberations, and with the advice of its Advisory Committee, the RHOI began to investigate an alternative means for projects to make their data freely available. This effort was aided substantially by the rapid development of FileMaker software, as well as database serving technologies, increasing bandwidths, and general improvements in computing infrastructure during the last few years. Consultations with member projects and individuals allowed the RHOI to identify and prioritize their informatics status and needs, and to articulate a solution consistent with original RHOI goals. This led to the development of the current specimen-based RHOI Database Template.

We encourage all RHOI projects to adopt the RHOI Database Template for several reasons:

• It is user-friendly
• It is flexible
• It has powerful data management and manipulation capabilities
• It has been designed to accommodate and standardize the most basic and most important specimen-based and locality-based information that each project is collecting or responsible for managing
• It will allow each project to maintain up-to-date records and to share these with other projects and investigators.
• It prompts you to acquire and maintain basic data important to any paleobiological endeavor