This lecture was presented at the 3D Digital Documentation Summit held July 10-12, 2012 at the Presidio, San Francisco, CA

Best Practices for Digital Documentation by Ekaterini Vlahos and Mike Nulty

Through the HABS/HAER/HALS programs the Secretary of the Interior has established Standards and Guidelines for Documentation and acceptability for inclusion in the Heritage Documentation Programs collections in the Library of Congress. As quoted, “they require that the documentation captures the significance of the site or structure; is accurate and verifiable; has archival stability; and is clear and concise”. As high-­?tech documentations methods such as LiDAR Digital Scanning, Photogrammetry and Digital Photography are increasingly being used to document a wide range of cultural resources from small artifacts to large cultural landscapes, we need to raise the question: What are the Best Practices used for Digital Documentation in the areas of Project Planning Assessment, Data Gathering, Data Processing and Management, Representation, and Data Archiving?

The session will present an evaluation of Best Practices for Digital Documentation being developed by the University of Colorado Denver – Center of Preservation Research and the National Park Service. Information has been gathered and analyzed from sources including an extensive academic literature search, project standards and guidelines from public and private sector organizations, and the existing HABS/HAER/HALS Standards and Guidelines. The intent is to provide information on:

1) Project Planning Assessment including: developing project goals and deliverables desired; data management planning; and technology assessment,

2) Site Assessment including: data capture planning, assessing the scale of the site; structure or object; conditions; accessibility; context; environmental conditions

3) Technology Assessment including: cost, time, accuracy requirements and available resources,

4) Data Gathering including: acquisition techniques; emerging technologies; accuracy; completeness; resolution and time,

5) Data Management including: processing of digital data; application; representation; accessibility, and short term archiving,

6) Data Archiving, both short term and long term, including storage of the digital data; migration of data, metadata; backup requirements; file formats; and accessibility.  

We will also address the challenges of long term archiving of digital data and the resources required to respond to ever-­?changing technologies in hardware and software. The raw data becomes a valuable artifact that will need to preserved for the future.


Cordell:     Our presenter this morning is Kat Vlahos. She’s an associate professor of architecture in the College of Architecture and Planning at the University of Colorado, Denver and she’s the Director of their Center for Preservation Research or COPR. You’re going to be hearing more from them tomorrow. She co-developed the Masters of Science and Historic Preservation program in the College of  Architecture and Planning where she teaches. The studios and seminars are focused on documentation, analysis, and design of historical cultural landscapes. She’s lectured extensively on her research,  focusing on the use of high-technology documentation methods, interpretation, and preservation of vernacular working landscapes in the American West. Investigations focus on understanding changing cultural landscapes that weave together the human experience, cultural traditions, and sustainable approaches to building. Welcome Kat.

Vlahos:    I do want to extend a thank you again to NCPTT and the Park Service for bringing us all together to have these conversations. What I am going to be presenting are really observations and hopefully a framework for future work. What began as a very quick abstract that we put together, overreaching and thinking that I could create best practices to present today and what it’s really become a work of progress. And I what I am going to talk about today is the methods we’ve been using to try to understand the best practices might mean as we are kind of in the wild frontier of digital documentation, as we saw some of the earlier projects, many of us are out there testing, trying, pushing the boundaries, trying to find bigger and better ways to do things and needing maybe to step back a little bit to reflect on the work that we are doing and try to think about the practices.

So, as we move forward, I am with the University of Colorado. Our Center is housed in the College of Architecture and Planning. We very much deal with the built environment, the changed environment and even the natural environment. We look at the past, we examine what sort of pressures might be on a particular place in the present but we also think about the future. How does this type of information inform our future actions. And we do this through education, research, and practice.

Our center focus is on three primary areas;  survey work, documentation, and structure’s assessment and Mike Nulty will be presenting some of our documentation work tomorrow. We find that there is a synergy between these three areas. They are intertwined but documentation plays such a critical role in helping survey work, in helping structural assessment work, and then tying a lot of this together.

So, in the projects that we’ve worked on, we’ve been engaged in digital documentation, LIDAR scanning in particular for the last 2 1/2 years and it really focuses on interpretive work or resource management. That seems to be whether we are working with the public sector or private sector, the type of projects we are focused on. The National Park Service has given us a grant, with the challenge to develop best  practices for digital documentation. The written word, photographs, LIDAR scanning, how do we really think about all of these digital formats, not only now, but also in the future.

The types of variables we took into account are;  time, quality, and cost, in addition to understanding the context within which this work is being explored. The scale and types of projects we are working on, whether it’s an artifact or a large cultural landscape, accuracy, resolution, all the things that I think the previous speakers have been talking about. Do these things need to be geo-referenced, is 3D even needed is one of the questions we are also asking, and if not, what are the alternatives for digital documentation, and ultimately, what are the deliverables? So these are all the kind of variables that we took into account as we began to explore what best practices might mean.

We did an extensive literature search and literature search went anywhere from technical guidelines to journal articles, to management strategies, public and private sector, academic institutions, non-profit organizations. We really tried to cover a lot and part of this was because we were talking to a lot of different people about the work that they were engaged in. We wanted to better understand who’s out there and who’s doing what, how are they doing it, and how can we learn from this process.

We also brought this into our classroom. We teach a class on documentation, specifically and our students were involved in both basic and applied research. But they also went in and further went into the comparative study between LIDAR study and photogrametry using a total station, and how does that compares to traditional drawing a CAD. We also looked at existing documentation programs that have a long history that established a series of best practices that we could draw from. Then went into direct communication, and I have to say  this was probably the most beneficial aspect of this research, was just getting on the phone and talking to people and asking questions and telling them what we were doing as a university center. We spoke to again, non-profits, private sector organizations, government agencies, other academic institutions, and raised the questions; “What are your best practices, where are the challenges you are coming across, what are the things you are observing in the field?”

And finally, our personal experience. As I said we’ve been in this engaged only for the last couple of  years but in that time period we’ve had the opportunity to really work on some exceptional projects with the Park Service, with the BLM, with the Federal Agencies, as well as in the private sector and I say most importantly reflection, because I do think as we engage in any type of technology, we do need to step back on occasion and look at what it is that’s happening, what is it that is coming out of this process, and what can we learn from it.

So the questions that came up repeatedly and I think I asked Mike earlier, “How many people did we talk to exactly,” and I think we landed somewhere around fifty some odd people. Some of the questions that came out of those discussions however were, “How should we even proceed?” And now, we’re not talking about us as those who are documenting but as you are interfacing with a potential user, how do we even think about using this technology, how do we plan to go out onsite and what is the purpose of the documentation? Why should we be using LIDAR scanning is one of the questions that keeps coming up. Just because it’s new and it’s bigger and better, should we really in fact be using it? When is it most appropriate to apply this type of technology to heritage and resource management? If there is a conditional situation where a resource might be disintegrating, do we want to capture information for interpretive purposes, what is the purpose, and what is the content that we are capturing, what is it that we are trying to understand about a particular place. So this might seem like common sense, I think, to many of us out there doing this, but as we began to engage in these conversations with people, we found more and more people were asking the same questions.

The two questions that came up more than any other were,  where does the data reside? So if you are working for an agency and you are capturing all this data, where does it reside, who owns that data? As we were capturing more and more information, this body of work is starting to grow, so again, how do we accommodate that?  And then ultimately, who’s responsible? Who’s responsibility is it to in fact go out, to capture the information, to manage it, to archive it, to make sure that it has a long life? So these are the main questions that were coming up out of our discussions.

So a couple of things, here’s what we know based on this information. Understanding, there seems to be a basic understanding, I’ll say a common base, that digital documentation, in fact, equals informed decision making. I think we saw that in a previous couple of presentations here, that by capturing information, by having a better understanding of place, by revealing information that might not always be apparent we can make informed decisions about the changes that might occur, the management of a particular place, or simply the documentation, to have a record of a particular site.

The next thing that we learned was that communication is vital to any successful project. Communication, we found, happens in two realms; one is organizational structure. So as we are working with the Park Service or other federal agencies, what is the organizational structure that is within that agency that supports this process.  We’ll talk a little more about that. And then the digital documentation structure, and as I was looking at these earlier presentations, I was thinking, “You all are in the field doing the work, you know the process, you know how to manage it, you know how to capture the data, so you have these incredible processes in place that could contribute to the much broader understanding of a best practice, and I want to talk to all of you about this.

So as we look at this, right now the responsibility is the agency will contact us and provide information. But within that agency you might have several entities  that are all out there scanning, and it’s not exactly coming to one central place, you know, it’s almost like the wild frontier as I was thinking about this. We have these wonderful pieces of equipment that are all out there trying to figure this out, but we are not necessarily talking to each other.

So two studies; this is kind of a decentralized, is how I think about this organization, this is how we are currently working. There is an organization that requests the digital documentation and that can be a regional office, a superintendent, stewards of the site, friends of the place, the SHPO office, private sector, you know there is a whole wide range of people that actually want digital documentation done. Then there is the provider and the provider typically is not housed within the organization. The provider is typically out here and they are doing the data gathering, the processing, the deliverables. They might also be the entity that manages it, as we saw earlier, you’re managing the data within the architectural firm, the private sector might manage their own data, and then there is the question of archiving, where does it go?On the flipside, over on the other side, we have the provider, who kind of works through planning, data gathering, processing management, representation of that information, and also archiving.

Now, one other case study that we came across in terms of best practices is sort of a more centralized view. That within these larger organizations I’m talking about more, you actually have a place where there are administrators, department heads, project teams, administration, and then you have those who actually are the provider of the digital data. The labs, the visual resource management, ITS, and the key is the communication between the upper band and the lower band to actually get these projects done. In our experience, what has come up repeatedly is oftentimes not, for a group that we might be working with, not understanding what the possibilities are for digital documentation. What is it that you do with that data? What is the outcome? Not necessarily understanding what the possibilities are for deliverables or outcomes. And that, in turn, I think, impacts how you are even going to even capture the data. So this kind of information and this kind of structure that would allow us to have these ongoing conversations and ask the right questions, seem to be critical to the best practices within an organization.

Now some basic principles that have come up. This is from the Getty conservation institute. They came up with, I think, some really exceptional principals for their own organization. I’d like to share these with you because they can create a broad framework of how we might think about best practices as we move forward. The first is respect and respect being that the  information is a valuable resource and it is essential to achieving most organizations’ objectives and should be treated with an appropriate level of respect. In some of our conversations, we would hear stories about someone cleaning out an office and coming across slides that no longer seem to be valued and the slides getting dumped. Well those are incredible pieces of information. So I’m thinking really what we have to look at is not only digital information, but the digitizing of information as being valuable.

The second one is responsibility, where everyone involved in any type of a project is in fact responsible for the effective management of that data. Accessibility would be one that we really try to understand, accessibility from multiple points. One of the discussions that’s come up was that we captured the data as a provider, the organization cannot necessarily manage that data, they don’t have the software, they don’t have the knowhow, it’s not accessible to them and so therefore, we’re kind of the keepers of the data. One of the things that we want to look at in terms of best practices is allowing all data to be accessible to those who need to use it. That means coming down to inclusive, being inclusive, which is a system of collaboration and partnerships, sharing, allowing all entities to access that data. But also recognizing that there are times when things have to be exclusive, so whether it is the contracts or sensitive information, that there is that realm too.

Timeliness was one of the things that we found was really important because it is information that is collected, analyzed, organized, named, and it happens quickly and in a timely manner. Sustainability, information needs to be preserved, organized, and archived for future use. I do not know what the answer is about  how it should be archived but the best practice means it should be archived somehow and I know tomorrow and  I think the day after , there’s going to be some more conversations about those.

Accountability is one which really speaks to that each person who creates or handles data is accountable for the successful implementation of that project. So again, it’s giving us all accountability on a project. As we move forward, what we find too is that kind of looks at the organizational structure for best practices. What is it that is happening within an organization, how is that data being handled? How is it being used for resource management or interpretive purposes? We have the other side of it to which is responsibility for the provider, who’s using digital documentation.

So as I said, we will be contacted, asked to come in and scan a particular site or a particular project and to consider a particular outcome, deliverables. We might collaborate with other organizations that have other skills, but ultimately we are delivering a piece of information. When we looked on our side of this, as digital documentation providers, we went back to the HABS guidelines and really studied those at great length, and again, these are kind of big broad umbrella ideas that, my hope is, can be developed with further detail.

So the idea of site assessment as the digital documentation, that really our goal is really to illustrate what is significant or valuable about a site or a cultural landscape, or a historic building or an object. But that, ultimately, is the goal that we are doing. If we keep that in mind as we are in the site, it also helps guide our capture. So whether we are looking at the Canyon of the Ancients here as we’re seeing, or a larger site, these large cultural landscape sites, understanding what is significant is critical to understanding what we will be capturing.

The second piece of this is really that we are capturing information from reliable sources and that there is a way to independently verify that information. So if we are capturing this information, we’re archiving it, and then someone else can come in and understand what’s been done. I think that the very first presentation really start to hit on that, you know you really start to understand what all the conditions are on a site. That this information then also takes into account the need for archiving, so when we worked at the Canyon of the Ancients, for example, you can see on the left hand side here, the digital documentation, measured drawing, so we can understand the scale of the sight, but then translating that into a format that is an acceptable format for the Library of Congress, and I have to tell you, our grad student was not very happy when they were in there  drawing every single little piece. However, they got an incredibly accurate set of HABS drawings because they were able to use our digital records as piece of information.

With that data management also comes managing electronic files, the server management as files become larger, as we are accumulating more and more information, and we have to think about how all this works. How we manage the images, sharing of information amongst ourselves and within agencies, as well as the software and hardware and how that continues to shift and change over time. The digital documentation needs to be clearly and concisely reproduced, as we can seen here as it is represented, and also what we are finding is that the web presence is really a critical component of a lot of our historic sites. It is the only access that many people will ever have to these sites. So being able to translate information into something that is understood and usable by others using the web is also an important piece of this.

So my big broad piece, digital documentation shall be clearly and concisely produced and archived is a big question for us still. We know that it includes the raw data, the pieces and parts we have accumulated, the content, how that content is actually being compiled into something that’s a deliverable, and we are looking at static long term and dynamic short term, so short term being something that is continuously being used on the project by multiple people, and static being long term archival.

As we get into this, there are a couple of last thoughts to have here. With regard to practice, which is selecting, it is important to recognize that not every little piece of information is something that needs to be archived. Not all files or images need to be treated equally and you need to think about how to manage that information and gleam from that information what is most critical, not only for the present but also for the future. To think about organizing, it’s best to organize data as soon as it is created. In some cases, images and files will begin to be organized during a field campaign or when working out in a field. That naming system needs to be looked into to provide essential information about file image, access and retrieval, to identify, which is to describe files, especially shared files, amongst many agencies is a key part of information management. Obviously backup is a really important piece that every member who is working on something is backing up the information. And then again, communication. How do we communicate? The one thing that we did also learn is each, I guess each industry I’ll say, whether if you’re and archeologist, or an architect or a landscape architect, within your given field, it seems that the best practices have been well developed. Where the best practices perhaps need to be broadened is that crossover between our fields when we collaborate so that we can in fact, use each other’s information and data.

In summary what I’ll look at here is the idea that we need to have some kind of a common foundation of understanding about concepts and practices and that authenticity and accessibility in preservation is important to represent current thinking on a topic. This is changing very, very quickly and to be current on that is important and to create sort of practical guidelines for those of us who are out in the field. Within that best practices, we also need to allow flexibility for individual projects because each project is different. And then also within each of the agencies or private sector organizations we’re working with, that there’s flexibility for them to work through these processes. Collaboration and partnerships are tantamount to successful projects we’re finding and that there’s enough consistency that we can all follow to facilitate access to each other’s information.

The last one really is about evolving as new issues, solutions, activities, and technologies emerge. Within the last year we’ve seen how much of a change there is in digital documentation and it’s going to continue to be exponential I believe and so allowing for those changes to happen is important.

What’s next for us is just taking these kind of big broad ideas as I said, we were hoping that very quickly we could put together this best practices and as we got into it more and more, what we realized is that there’s sort of these big overarching ideas. We want to explore the development of processes, become much more specific in our information, provide a model perhaps for discussion that looks at acquisition and organization, accessing information, retrieving digital information, not only for those of us who are the providers of digital documentation, but also for the agencies that hire us. And I’d like to invite all of you as you’re kind of working through your own processes if you feel that there is something that you would be willing to share with us, to please send it to us. I have some cards that I’ll leave on the back table for our Center. As we compile this information, we’d like to sort of send it out to everyone and get feedback on this as well and get your thoughts on them. Thank you very much.

Speaker Bio

Ekaterini ‘Kat’ Vlahos is an Associate Professor of Architecture in the college of Architecture and Planning at the University of Colordo Denver, and the Director of the Center of Preservation Research (CoPR). She co-developed the Masters of Science in Historic Preservation in the college of Architecture and Planning, and teaches design studios and seminars focused on the documentation, analysis and design of historic cultural landscapes. Professor Vlahos has lectured extensively on her research focusing on the use of high-technology documentation methods, interpretation, and preservation of vernacular working landscapes in the American West.  Her investigations focus on understanding changing cultural landscapes that weave together the human experience, cultural traditions, and sustainable approaches to building.

Mike Nulty is CoPR’s Technical Coordinator. Michael manages the center’s state of the art digital technology, including interactive website construction, Sketchup 3-D site maps, virtual tours, and other similar tools.  His private sector work has involved historic and adaptive reuse projects.  Michael’s research interests lie in examining how the applications of digital technology can enhance our understanding, appreciation, and investigation of historic cultural landscapes.