Make any database into your very own iPad app with FileMaker
If you need to hack around with some data, unless you're a specialist, you put it in Excel. It's a universal data-munging engine that lets you add, average, sort, filter, and process your data to see what the patterns might be. Excel is enormously powerful. But it's a terrible place to keep your data, still less to capture it. Typing and tabbing between fiddly little cells where copy and paste doesn't work the way it does in any other software makes data entry painful when you have a mouse and keyboard; unless you have a Windows 8 tablet with a pen like Surface Pro, you probably wouldn't attempt filling in more than the odd number in Excel on a tablet. If you need to store an inventory, a catalog, or a list of anything, what you need is a database.
Enter the venerable FileMaker, which I've been using for about two decades.
FileMaker Pro is an unusual combination. It's a database that's powerful enough to build database solutions in. You can connect to Oracle, SQL, ODBC, and XML data, create workflow and business logic, set up scripts, and do data validation and conditional formatting. Large companies like the Austin Convention Center and Lee Medical are using FileMaker to create iPad systems that replace pen and paper for construction workers who need to see what booth goes where at a trade show, or nurses who need to see patient records and prescriptions.
But if you don't need the more complex features, FileMaker is as easy to use as Excel (for a lot of things, it's easier in fact). You can work on a Mac or PC. You can even start with an Excel spreadsheet that has column titles and convert it into a basic database (with the column titles as the field names) just by dragging the file into FileMaker. That gives you a layout that looks very like Excel where you can search and sort your data. Then you can drag the fields around on screen and add buttons and scripts to create different layouts. Lastly, you can use the free FileMaker Go software to open and update your database on an iPad, an iPhone, iPod Touch -- or most Web browsers.
That's what Chicago University Ph.D student and archaeologist Michael Jennings did for the dig he's part of in Palestine. In the 11th century the Islamic castle at Khirbet al-Mafjar, near Jericho, was a lavish palace with mosaic-decorated bath houses full of decorative wall carvings, sculptures, and frescoes.
Usually, the archaeologists at the side take photos and draw sketches, then keep them in large and heavy binders. Paper records can go astray; in fact all the records of the Jordanian archaeologists who excavated the northern area of the Jericho site are missing, so the team has been taking new notes on site. They had to lug the binders around the site and then stuff them in their carry-ons before they fly back to their university departments, where they would scan and type the information in a database to make sure they don't get lost again.
As that database was already in FileMaker, Jennings and the field director Jehad Yasin were able to make an iPad version very quickly. They can take pictures using the iPad camera and draw a sketch on screen. Because the database already had details of things like the kind of coins found in some buildings, it was easy to create drop-down lists to choose from; that's not just faster than writing it down, it makes the records more consistent so they're easier to analyze.
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