AAFS Workshop on Data Management and Analysis

Workshop report by Felix Engel

In 2018, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) held its annual scientific meeting from 19 to 24 February in Seattle (Washington, USA). Before the scientific sessions started on Thursday, a number of workshops were held, among them a meeting dedicated to data standardisation and management, entitled “Digital Data Standards, Analysis and Archiving in Forensic Anthropology”. Participants encountered a series of new software tools specifically designed for applications within biological anthropology and the ″vision of a unified data architecture and ontology of forensic anthropology data″.

AAFS meeting 2018

Entrance to the meeting space at the Seattle Convention Center.

One of the technologies presented at the workshop was the digital data standard RDFBones which is being developed at the anthropology department of Freiburg University (Germany) by GfA members Stefan Schlager and Felix Engel. The software had been previously presented at the GfA meetings in Munich (2015) and Geislingen (2017). In Seattle, RDFBones featured together with an alternative approach to online collaboration and data pooling, the Commingled Remains and Analytics (CoRA) platform, a joint development of the Institute of Information Science & Technology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (Nebraska, USA) and the identification laboratory of the Defense Prisoners of War and Missing in Action Accounting Agency (DPAA) at the Offut Air Force base (Nebraska, USA).

While RDFBones provides an open framework for the description of research methods and the resulting data, CoRA is a database system that can be configured to support different research methods and links to external applications through an application programming interface (API). While RDFBones allows for extensive data annotation, mapping and the creation of large data pools, CoRA focusses on access management to containers of structured and unstructured data. Consequently, RDFBones is best employed for data management within institutions, long term data storage and publication of primary data. CoRA’s strengths are provision of data to an ecosystem of software applications for forensic anthropology, based on detailed access rights.
The workshop showed that there are several developments towards overarching infrastructures allowing for better collaboration among biological anthropologists to produce compatible data structures. Instead of providing monolithic applications, this new generation of software projects is designed to hook up with other pieces of software to form collaborative networks. Focusing initiatives from various directions, this approach promises to gain larger impact on the scientific community in the future.

Several applications for anthropological data analysis were also presented at the workshop. Carl Stephan has developed a whole suite of software applications at the DPAA that are available through his website CRANIOFACIALidentification.com. At the workshop he presented two of them, Skelet-o-matic and TDStats. Skelet-o-matic is a macro-enhanced spreadsheet template (realised with Microsoft Excel) that supports the compilation of skeletal inventories. Completeness of skeletal elements and sections is rated numerically. Skelet-o-matic presents summary statistics based on this input and renders a graphical representation of skeleton completeness in a homunculus – a schematic drawing of the human skeleton. TDStats is an R package carrying out automated analysis of soft tissue thickness, as needed in facial reconstructions.

Jeffrey Lynch presented another software developed at the DPAA. Osteosort is an R package that identifies bone pairs in commingled assemblages of skeletal remains based on morphometric information in two or three dimensions. Some of the R functions used in this process stem from Stefan Schlager’s package Morpho. Lynch has also developed a complex graphical user interface, OsteoShiny, based on the R package Shiny. Lynch has created the website OsteoCodeR.com for software tools developed by him.

Finally, Stephe Ousley related his experience with creating and maintaining the long-standing morphometrical application Fordisk. He called for rigorous definitions as a basis for collaborative research and presented the prospect of a new version of Fordisk in the near future.

The number of software applications available to biological anthropologists is expanding fast. Technologies like R enable researchers to easily share their approaches and tools with their colleagues. Now it is up to them to adopt the habit of using them.

Presentations from the workshop can be downloaded from a web page dedicated to the event.