Fieldworks software

I have been playing around today with the latest tool from the SIL– it’s called fieldworks and it’s meant to be a replacement, ultimately, for Toolbox/shoebox. It’s a suite of tools for analysing language and anthropology. The language explorer has all of the functions that Toolbox has at the moment. That is, there’s a way to do interlinearisation, and the way to interface text preparation with dictionary preparation. It has live update in the interlinear section — that is, if you make a change in the gloss section, it’s reflected in the interlinear output. In Toolbox, of course, you have to reinterlinearise. There’s a way to import databases from Toolbox, although it’s very clunky. I lost a heap of glosses in the test i did. There doesn’t seem to be a way to import texts at this stage.

The dictionary tools are somewhat similar to Toolbox at present: that is, it’s roughly the same model of dictionary preparation. Data integrity is enforced much more strictly in the fieldworks suite, though, which I think is a good thing. I think it would be very difficult to you end up putting something in a scientific field because you wanted italics for example.

There’s also a way of keeping detailed grammar notes within the same file, which I think is also an advantage over Toolbox. It’s easier to make notes and crossreference different types of information in this platform.

I haven’t really looked at the anthropological sections of the software yet, but it looks superficially pretty similar to the anthropological notetaking structure that was one of the sample files in Toolbox. That is, there’s a list of topics as a suggestion for a notetaking guide.
Another really big advantage of the software is that it can be used by more than one person at once — that is, it can be run over a server. This already makes it a much better option than Toolbox for using in field methods class.
Now onto the things that I don’t like about the software. To be fair to SIL, this is a beta release and it’s clear that there are plans to fix some of these issues. On the other hand, there was never a version of Toolbox released without fairly major bugs of one sort or another. It took me approximately 15 minutes to crash this program. I can’t remember what I was doing but it wasn’t anything extraordinary. In general, the program is incredibly memory intensive and takes up about 1 GB of hard drive space. It also runs rather slowly. This makes it rather frustrating to use.
You can’t link audio or pictures to items in the lexicon, it appears. Perhaps that will change in future updates. I would hope so: linking audio to texts and lexical items would appear to be a pretty basic function these days.
Next, SIL seemed to have continued to advocate that particular dictionary model that is hardwired into Toolbox. That is, a model which places all of the information collected in the entry for a particular Language head word, and not in an English word. This makes it very difficult to create anything other than Language to English dictionaries. Such dictionaries are not optimal for endangered languages, when most of the looking up is done from English to Language, and not the other way around. I would have thought that this could be something that’s changed in a program like fieldworks, which is more dynamic than Toolbox. (By the way, fieldworks is based on XML.)
Another thing that I think it is a big setback in this program compared to Toolbox is how user-friendly it is. To be sure, it’s user unfriendly in a different way from Toolbox: Toolbox takes quite a bit of work to set up, and the structure is somewhat fragile so if you’re in a we are doing it’s quite easy to do something that makes it difficult to work. The fieldworks program is much easier to set up and data entry is much more robust, but I think it requires a much greater level of linguistic sophistication than Toolbox does to get started. For example, in a new dictionary entry you’re presented with a heap of information and categories to choose from. And sure, you can say that you don’t know for any of the particular pieces of information, but I can imagine this being a major hurdle. I received an e-mail recently which, amongst other things, made the point that the software that linguists use shuts out aboriginal people from writing their own dictionaries. There is so much linguistic terminology built in to the software that it requires a great deal of training in order to use it. Now, in this particular case I have disagreed very strongly with the person who wrote this, because I knew in this case that the relevant people did have training and you what they were doing. Moreover, the where the dictionary database was set up was quite user-friendly compared to many. But I think this will be a real issue with fieldworks. It’s designed for a very specific model of working: that of the linguist being in charge and working with another language assistants. I think it’s a mistake to build software that’s less accessible, rather than more accessible.
Furthermore, at this stage some of the defaults seem rather unintuitive. For example, gloss entry fields do not automatically appear in items in the dictionary whether glosses are not filled in.
Finally, fieldworks seems to be presenting a type of language description by numbers. The program comes with a large number of predefined categories which you can just fill in. But they are structured in such a way that I can imagine them being very misleading to someone who didn’t really understand either a) what categories are, or b) how the language really works. And there are a few things which are just wrong. Stative is not a tense!
One more thing: one of the huge advantages of Toolbox was that it did not require large numbers of mouse clicks in order to enter data. It didn’t have drop-down menus and lots of dialog boxes. The new software has considerably more of that which makes data entry quite a bit more time-consuming. I hope in future versions it will be possible to customise keyboard shortcuts or specify the default fields that show up in data entry in the lexicon. Requiring drop-down menus and mouse clicks makes the software less accessible too.


12 responses to “Fieldworks software

  1. You’re very right that FLEx, in its current version, is not recommended for non-linguists. One part of our strategy for these folks is WeSay (see

  2. Claire,
    I’m sure the developers will really appreciate your review here. Many of the things that bit you are recognized problems… some of your insights will be new and helpful.

    I was a part of the development effort in the past, and from what I know of the product, there are a fair number of things where it actually does what you want, but didn’t see how to do. From the feedback I’ve been seeing, this is all to common.

    For example, you can add a media file (sound or movie) to a pronunciation. A “play” button then appears, which will play/show the media.

    Similarly, if I click on the Sense menu, I can “Add Picture”. I appears with both the full picture and the thumbnail. I then told it “just show me the thumbnail from now on”.

    Finally, about mouse usage. I just made a new entry. I launched the dialog, chose the entry type, gloss, category, and closed the dialog, all without the mouse. Where you can’t do a common thing with the keyboard, the FLEx team will be happy to fix it, I bet.

    I’ll leave it to a lexicographer to address the issue of producing English-to-Language dictionaries. I know they’ve done a lot of work in the area of reversals.

    The FieldWorks team has a *lot* of work to do realize FLEx’s potential. It sounds from your experience that a critical task is more demo movies, to make it clear how to use what’s already there, eh?

  3. Sorry, one more comment. The link in the review leads to a rather useless page. The real site showing the features of FLEx, is here:

  4. John, I’m very sorry for the delay in acknowledging your comment. I need to play around with FLEx a bit more, clearly.

    I’d say not necessarily demo movies, but maybe a cheat sheet or two with the most common things that people do in Toolbox and where to find it in FLEx (and maybe some of the things that FLEx can do that Toolbox can’t?). I did look through the help files for some things (interlinearisation for example) and found them less useful than the Toolbox help files. For example, the FLEx interlinearisation help seems to be mostly a morphology tutorial, whereas I was looking for ways to troubleshoot why the parser wasn’t finding morphemes in my lexicon.

    WeSay looks fantastic! I’m looking forward to hearing more about it, and seeing demos (I’d be happy to be a guinea pig for it if you need testers). Just about developing WeSay for the Mac – a lot of Australian remote (Aboriginal) schools use macs, and I think you’d have a big audience there.

  5. Claire,

    Let me add my thanks for your review. I’m one of the developers.

    Your comment about finding stative listed under tense concerns me. I have no idea where you found this. Could you kindly tell me where and, also, which version of the tool you are using (go to Help / About and tell me what it has in the “Version:” line). Thanks.


  6. Hi Andy,
    It’s Beta 0.8, build 0.8.2006.04129. I downloaded it from SIL’s site about a bit under a week before I posted this.

  7. Thanks, Claire.

    Now could you please tell me where it was that you saw stative listed under tense? Was it in one of the language projects provided with it or was it somewhere else?



  8. I think it was in the sample project that opens when you download the sample, but I thought I saw it elsewhere in the predefined categories too. Just a sec..

  9. Hi Claire,
    I’m on the development team too. Thanks for your review, which was very interesting to read.

    I want to answer why we released a beta/buggy product.

    We want to get early feedback. This is to help us avoid the scenario where we work on the program for several years and then find out we’ve got something major wrong, or where we spend lots of time on a feature that hardly anyone will use.

    We started by releasing Alphas to a very small number of people. Once we got to the point where we thought the program might already be useful to some real users, we released it more widely, though with the beta caveat label.

    For us in the development team, this has been a very helpful approach. We’ve been told about problems installing on German XP which we would never have found ourselves, to name just *one* example.

    I think somewhere between 30 to 50 people are already using Language Explorer for their work. (This is based on reports I get through the “usage” emails, bug reports, and other emails.) I know that thanks to them, what we will be releasing shortly as version 1 will be better than it would have been had we not released the “early” versions. In particular, users who send in the crash reports with some details help us find (and thus fix) crashes.

    So, that’s the rationale behind it.

    -Susanna Imrie

  10. Hi Susanna,
    Thanks for your post! I’m all in favour of beta releases, and I’m planning a further post in a week or so as a follow-up to this one. It’s possible when I wrote the first post I forgot that this was a beta release (I’ve since seen the log-in screen a few times, but I kept the program open for the several days over which I tested it so it might well have slipped my mind that it was beta software).

    Also, the course managment software that Rice has just shifted to is a full release (after being beta-tested last year) but it’s absolutely crammed full of bugs and non-working features which were sprung on me after it was too late not to use the software. Some of my irritation at this may have filtered through into the review, for which I apologise.

  11. Thanks Claire.

    The other thing I wanted to address was the need to place the information under English words instead of vernacular headwords, to support English to vernacular dictionaries.

    Currently Language Explorer supports this in a basic way in the Reversal Indexes view in the Lexicon area. This view is designed to provide a English index to the (more detailed) vernacular entries.

    To support what you need more adequately, we need to add (either or both):
    – configurable reversal index, so that you can display more of the vernacular entry information under the English headword (“reversal entry”).
    – enhance the dictionary view configuration to allow you to specify that the reversal entries should be the key item, with vernacular entries organised below them.

    Either of these would allow you to see a draft-publish view which lays out the data in the way your require. However, neither of these would go as far as organising the lexical entry view under the “reversal entry” headwords. I think that would be possible too, given the relational database, just is a slightly further departure from our current views.


  12. Claire, thanks for checking out WeSay. And thanks for the info re: macs in aboriginal schools. That’s very relevant to us.

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