How to find a needle in a haystack? Implementation of RFID as an improvement in the management of a scientific collection: the case of Institut Català de Paleontologia Laura Celià‐Gelabert. Institut Català de Paleontologia, Sabadell, Catalonia email@example.com 0. The aim of this communication In 2007 the collection management department of ICP was restructured. At that time several shortcomings were detected. However, it was not until last year that we started to implement some solutions. One of these new projects is the management of the locations, which we try to improve with the introduction of new technologies. We have just begun, we are not experts, but we think it’s interesting to share the project’s conception and the methodology used. Often small museums (like ours) have not the resources to solve some problems. These are common in many centers. So we think to share of our short experience will help other institutions to solve the problem faster. 1. Presentation of the ICP First of all I would like to present our institution and our work. I think it’s important because the majority of the participants in the ERC belong to the world of art. So please, let me introduce you into the world of fossils. a. What it is The Institut Català de Paleontologia (ICP) is a private foundation created in November of 2006. It belongs to the local government of Catalonia (research department, not culture) and it is heir of an old Institute created in 1969. As a center of reference in research, conservation and diffusion of the paleontology of vertebrates in Catalonia (Spain), the ICP aims to promote research and conservation of the paleontological heritage at an international level and allow the efficient transfer of knowledge to society. We carry out all the stages of paleontology from the finding, excavation and preparation of a fossil to its conservation, study and publication of results in scientific magazines and to its exposure in the mass media, exhibitions and museums. b. Where it is Due to the expansion experienced over the last years (nowadays we are 50 people) our Institute has four sites. The research departments and preparation labs are located in the University (UAB) and the Museum and warehouses are located in the city of Sabadell. 2. The collection of the ICP
Our collection is used basically to research and, sometimes, to exhibit what is investigated. It includes fossils, current material as well as the moulds and casts of different pieces. a. How many pieces it has and from where they come It contains more than two hundred thousand specimens that are between 240 million years and 10,000 years old. It is considered one of the most important collections of fossil vertebrates in Europe. It can be divided into: macrofossils, with almost sixty thousand prepared and catalogued pieces; and microfossils, with more than forty thousand pieces, mainly mice and shrew teeth. The origin of the pieces is diverse. We have materials from the Iberian Peninsula, but there are also specimens coming from France, North Africa and the United States. b. Annual rate of entries How do fossils arrive to ICP? As in other countries, Spain has an important regulatory framework which governs the proceedings on cultural heritage. These laws require that all construction activities carried out on archaeological or paleontological sites should have a technical control. They also mark that all pieces appeared should be deposited in a public and monographic museum. In our case, all the excavated fossils in Catalonia are deposited in our center, which is responsible for their preservation. Each year, about 22.000 new fossils arrive to the ICP. For that reason we have a specific department to manage these inputs of material, including the transport and inventory from the site to the centre. c. Consultations and movements per year All these fossils are stored in a special warehouse. From there, they are transported to the preparation lab, where the sediment that surrounds them is removed and the fossil is consolidated. Now, they are ready to be catalogued and studied. The main use of our collection is the research. Scientists from Spain, Europe and other continents come to Sabadell to study our fossils. We have an average of 200 requests per year, including loans and consultations. This means that there is a movement of about 8000 fossils per year, regardless of the inputs of new materials. 3. Main problems of the collection of the ICP Currently, the departments related with the collection include 11 people (curators and managers). This number is not enough to standardize the collection protocols and to solve the problems accumulated over 50 years. The main problems we have are: a. In terms of conservation We need to improve the screening of the collection to identify problems of conservation. We also need time and people to solve each problem identified.
b. In terms of documentation (to solve the most urgent) 4. In terms of documentation From a specific point of view, we have two problems with: a. Problems with databases (non unified) Databases were started to use during the nineties and until twenty ou seven there have not been uniformed criteria to use it. In each previous stage, each collection manager has used a different program and a different methodology of documentation. For this reason, in twenty ou seven the catalog of the collection was divided into 4 different formats and there was no file with the entire unified catalog. Each time we had to find a fossil, we had to do 4 quests: one in each format. Since 2008 we have implemented a data base offered by the local government of Catalonia, called Museumplus. This database creates some problems, but allows us to unify documentation criteria. b. The main difficulty: management of locations With this program we can control 5 “static” characteristics of each fossil: the registration number, the animal to which it belonged, the anatomical identification, the site from where it comes and the age it has. These are the five filters we use to attend the requests. But there is one critical area: the location. In a collection with 200.000 pieces, divided into 4 different homes and that has a lot of movement of fossils, we need to manage very well all the locations. When we use them? Like everybody… On one hand, when we need to find a fossil. On the other, when we need to make an inventory of the collection (total or partial). Basically the problem is that sometimes is not in the box it should. And there Is no way to know if the fossil is missing, if it is in another of 3000 boxes, if it is in a researcher office… So we need a system to quickly locate a fossil in a room. c. Need to find solutions for managing locations Actually, the only way we have to do this is by hand. This means a great investment of time (A time we do not have!). 5. The difficulties of finding solutions The problem with the locations existed from the nineties, but had never sought an effective solution. Why? First of all, because daily work does not allow enough time to track the market.
Second, because our collection staff do not have adequate knowledge to evaluate the market offerings. In our case it was very important the role of an external company, specialized in process analysis and in software implementation. This company is CCQ and they had the time and the knowledge to search solutions for us. 6. Looking for solutions a. Analysis of procedures of the Collection Department Its first step was to analyze the work of collection area. What we did and how we did it. This analysis allowed having an objective view of our procedures and hot spots in the collection management. To do the analysis, CCQ met with all members of the department and interviewed us. During these meetings, they identified the points for improvement. b. Improvement options: staff increasing versus new technologies The solution that seems the simplest to solve the locations problem is hiring more staff. However there are options with a lower cost and higher efficiency. In Spain, the gross cost of hiring a full‐time technician is about 36.000 € per year. Normally it is possible to hire staff for some months, but not permanently. This means investing time in training again and again to different people (which finally left the museum for a more stable and better paid work). If we can introduce a system capable to improve the management of the locations with the current staff, the investment (economic and psychological) will be lower. In our case, the introduction of a new technology has one con: the lack of background. c. Our choice: new technologies Despite this, our choice was the introduction of new technologies to improve the locations management. 7. New technologies in the market: different options When we are looking for solutions to improve the detection of a fossil in the store, there are basically two options in the market: barcodes and RFID. a. Barcode As you know, there are two major types of barcodes: linear and bi‐dimensional. The most common type of linear barcode is EAN: European Article Number (now called International Article Number). Normally it presents 13 digits which codify different information. In the case of bi‐dimensional codes we can find the data matrix and the QR code.
In both cases (linear and bi‐dimensional), the main handicap is the need to have “visual contact” between the tracker and the label. For us, this is a great disadvantage because the storage of fossils does not allow this “visual contact”. So, barcodes are not useful to find a needle in a haystack! b. RFID RFID is a system of storing and remotely retrieving data, using trackers and labels called TAGs. The main purpose of RFID technology is identification and tracking of objects via electromagnetic waves. Each tag consists of a small chip, which stores all the information, and a big antenna, which transmits and receives this information by radiofrequency. Essentially there are two types of tags: active (which contains a battery and can transmit signals once an external source has been successfully identified) and passive (which have no power source and require an external electromagnetic field to initiate a signal transmission). The problems may have RFID technology: ‐ The presence of metal, which bounces the signal ‐ The presence of liquid, which reduces the signal ‐ A bad use, which can break the chip ‐ The presence of potent frequency inhibitors CLIC As environmental conditions, RFID technology does not work at temperatures above 70oC and below ‐20oC. (I think any person should work under these temperatures…) The main advantage for us is that it does not need visual contact between tracker and tag. In addition, passive labels do not require power and are cheaper than active ones. 8. Providers a. Searching companies The main problem when we have to choose a new technology: ‐ The selling company has tightly controlled the sale process, but the buyer (the museum) is almost neophyte. A consulting company helps the buyer TO CHOOSE what he buys (not to buy what the seller wants). In our case, CCQ made the following steps to find companies: ‐ Internet tracking ‐ Finding references through friendly channels ‐ Contacting with companies that already use the product successfully
‐ Contacting with associations of providers. With all the data collected a short list was drawn up with the 8 best providers in Spain. They found no history of use of passive RFID in the management of museum collections. b. Evaluation and selection CCQ then made a refinement of the short list using the following criteria: ‐ Previous experience in RFID ‐ Degree of specialization of the company (only RFID or more products) ‐ Physical proximity to the ICP (due to the need for develop a specific software) ‐ Company size ‐ Company age ‐ Quality of the information obtained in the sector The final result was a tie of two companies. Each one was asked a proposal to solve our problem. Thanks to the document and several meetings it became clear what the best company for the project was. This process was also useful to verify that RFID technology was mature enough to start the new project. c. Saident Saident RFID solutions was the company chosen. It was founded in 2003 to work in the integration of RFID technology. They are EPCglobal member and they have worked in many professional sectors: distribution and logistics, jewellery, laundry, cellars, accreditation congress, hospitals etc. www.saident.com 9. Application of RFID in the ICP After choosing the company, we have to make more concrete the ICP project, adjusting it to the real needs. a. Goals and schedule Goal: to design, develop, implement and integrate a RFID solution for the unequivocal identification and inventory of the specimens of ICP collection. Schedule: ‐ Project start: July 19th ‐ Analysis and design: from July 19th to August 1st ‐ August: holidays ‐ September: inauguration of the new museum ‐ Project review and corrections: from October 6th to 22nd ‐ Final project acceptance: October 25th ‐ Software development: until November 25th
‐ Test: from November 25th to December 3rd ‐ Validation: until December 17th ‐ At the end of 2010, the project should be finished. b. Partners of the project As we have already said before, there was no known reference to the use of passive RFID in control of museum collections. For this reason it was necessary to develop a product (software) specific for the ICP. We think a customized product has a great disadvantage: a future client’s weakness against the provider. Because of the location problem is common to many museums, we propose to develop a standard product applicable to other collections. In this case, our role is to be the first test institution. Saident had to decide if it was interesting to host this project as a new line of business growing and opening a new sector: the museums. The consulting company’s experience was very important to convince Saident that museums are an active sector in full development and growth in relation to new technologies. Finally, Saident accepted. So, this project is developed by three partners: ICP: contributes expertise on the collection. Saident: contributes expertise on RFID implementation. CCQ: contributes expertise on general assessment in software implementation. c. How to insert information in a tag? When we create a new register in the database, we must record this information in a tag. How? Problems with the company that develops collection software do not allow integrating RFID in this software. So, we have a small application that acts as a bridge between the database and the tag. We have a USB device connected to our computer, on which we place the new tag. With this specific software, we do record the information of the new fossil. This information is transmitted from the database to the TAG by radiofrequency. d. What types of RFID tags we use? We essentially will use three types of tags, all passive ones. These types depend on the size of the material to control. In our collection we have microfossils, which are stored individually above lego pieces (near to 60.000 pieces); CLIC and macrofossils (near to 70.000 pieces), which have a specific label and they are stored in plastic boxes CLIC (3.000 boxes). So, we are interested in controlling the lego pieces, the macrofossils labels and the boxes. e. How we read the information in an RFID tag?
The first decision was to use UHF frequency, which brings many advantages to the project (increased the range and the speed reading). To read the tag information we use a portable tracker, like a PDA. Before to start, we must synchronize it with the database, to collect the latest changes. Once synchronized, we can begin the process of inventory or search by choosing one of two options in the tracker. ‐ If we make a total inventory: the tracker begins to read the pieces detected. We can stop at any time and keep the information already checked, allowing us to continue at another time. ‐ If we make a partial inventory: first we must choose the search criteria. Once applied, the tracker will check the collection letting us know when it finds something sought. In both cases, the tracker contrasts real information with database information. Upon completion, it generates a report with the errors detected. f. Initial handicap. For the moment, due to problems generated by software used for database (created by a different company), data communication goes only in one direction: from the database to the RFID software. Never in the wrong way round. This means that we cannot correct errors found during the inventory, something that would be very useful to save time. g. Cost The main cost of RFID technology is the tags. For example, we need more than 100.000 tags. But it is not necessary to buy all them at once. We can make a plan and see how fast we will use them and then, to buy as we need. Small tag: 0,12 €/UNIT Fossil and box tag: 0,16 €/UNIT The software cost is for the annual license, depending on the number of simultaneous users. 10. Work done to date and next steps a. Contract signing and first tests At this time ICP has signed the contract with Saident and development phase has begun. As we explained, it is expected the application will be running at the end of the year. b. Project development and evaluation In the early months of 2011 we will evaluate the project and begin to develop some improvements (such as bidirectionality tracker‐database). 11. Conclusions
‐ Because of the problems accumulated over 50 years and the current rate of requests, we have the need to find a specific solution for managing the locations. ‐ We opted for the new technologies in order to make more efficient the work of our staff. ‐ For us, new technologies are cheaper than hiring. ‐ Due to the impossibility of having “visual contact” between the label and the reader, we choose the passive RFID instead of barcodes. ‐ We are developing a standard product that can be applied to other institutions, with the aim of creating an important customer lobby and not be alone in front of the provider. ‐ This product, under development, allows full and partial inventories and also to make specific searches by various criteria. ‐ This process of analysis and solution would not have been possible without a consulting company specialized in new technologies. We believe it is important that museums professionals have the advice of other specialists groups.