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Jeremy Faludi, 6 Dec 05

ButterflyNet is an open-source program to help scientists capture and data-enrich or media-enrich their field notes. It records every word and scribble in your physical (paper) notebook by means of a digital pen, which creates a digital copy of your notebook; then it coordinates this time-stamped writing with your sensor data logs, GPS data, and images from your digital camera, to automatically insert images and data into the relevant pages of the digital notebook. It even allows you to mark out space on the page of your physical notebook where you would like the images to appear in the digital version. Stanford issued a press release about it yesterday, and you can download and install it if you want to try it yourself, though you'll need the hardware for the handwriting. (The Nokia SU-1B and Logitech IO2 pen & paper are known to work, though others might also.) So far the software does not combine all the disparate data, text, images, etc. into one unitary file--it is simply a browser that lets you view all of them together. However, Ron Yeh, lead architect of the software, says "we can imagine export tools to export and archive to HTML or PDF", which would put everything together.

It was specifically designed for biology field work (hence the name ButterflyNet), but it would clearly be useful for other scientists as well (just drop files into the right directory; images like MatLab graphs should get inserted as automatically as digital photos). It could also be useful for journalists, ethnographers, and anyone else who takes multimedia notes--the press release quotes prof. Scott Klemmer as saying, "we have also had significant interest from other communities, such as designers, anthropologists and the medical community."

While the program is still just a prototype, "not without glitches", it might eventually become a best-of-both-worlds solution for people who need the reliability of paper in the field, but also need digital search and data-analysis tools, and want to avoid the hassles of transcribing back and forth between paper & digital. Even the biggest geeks among us have to acknowledge that paper is still superior to digital in the field--as Klemmer said, "Paper notebooks have infinite battery life... Scientists will say, 'I have never had my laboratory notebook crash on me. My notebook never loses data. I have never had to troubleshoot my notebook, spend three hours on hold with IBM or wait for a new part for my notebook to come.' " It is also less intrusive for biologists (or others) that would avoid spooking their subjects with glowing screens, whirring fans, and the clickity-click of typing. But digital notes have the advantage of being searchable, easily copied & shared, hyperlinked, and generally interacting better with data analysis software and publishing tools.

The program was created by Stanford's human-computer interface (HCI) group; other open-source projects there related to biology field work include Parrot Audio Interview Annotator (which allows a user to take their digitized audio notes and insert images, tags, and other data at time-stamped locations in the audio) and Thucydides Notebook Analyzer (for seeing how much of a notebook is text vs. images). Yeh says the HCI group is also working on adding Parrot's audio capabilities to ButterflyNet.

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I looked for good digital pens, but there doesnt seem to be many good options. The Nokia requires considerable effort to syncronize. The Logitech needs special paper.

I really just want something that lets me draw on regular paper, and streams that information live to my computer. If someone's considering building one of these things, you might as well just do it right and add pressure sensitvity to the mix.

Any interm solutions people could recommend would be great.

Posted by: Rektide on 6 Dec 05



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