Anthropologists and software is a big problem. N6 and SPSS are more program than we need. Hobbyist genealogy programs don’t handle polygamy well and have never heard of matrilineal descent. In my experience, anthropology’s general ghettoness when it comes to quantitative rigor tend to be reflected in hacked-together databases (sometimes even using suck programs like FileMaker), interviews recorded on iPods and dumped into iTunes, and so forth. When will someone develop a decent piece of software that will just let us do a decent census of our village?
Enter “Community Express 2.0”:http://communityexpress.info/, written by my friend and colleague John Burton and available for free download for non-profit individual use. John is an academic/consultant type who works on land and social impact issues in Papua New Guinea and the Torres Straits. Ever since I started reading his work while I was in the field I have been blown away by how consistently insightful he has been about just about everything he’s written — his paper “C’est qui, le patron?”:http://eprints.anu.edu.au/archive/00002246/01/rmap_wp01.pdf is for some reason one of my favorite pieces of PNG ethnography ever although it is only 11 pages long and you will find it totally unremarkable. He is also one of the few people I trust to conduct rigorous and accurate social mapping in PNG (a land of poor censuses and weirdo consultancy reports). John has spent years trying to develop a piece of software that will do what many anthropologists want to do — get their village into a computer and munge up the data.
The program known more about demographics than I do (the intricacies of birth spacing, for instance) and, most critically for me, the program understands the distinction between residence and descent, so you can do genealogical work that integrates with a regular household census. Perfect those pesky societies – which is to say every society — where people move around and live in different places.
Now let’s be up front here: Community Express suffers from several problems, some serious. It was, for instance, written by John, who is remarkable for his curmudgeon contrariness. He has made the interface more intuitive than in pervious versions, but at some level it is designed by him for him and by god you will just have to learn how to use it. Additionally, the software is designed to integrate tightly with Microsoft Word (boo! hiss!) so if you want to print up the nifty automagic pivot chart of your data you’d better have excel installed and Community Express had better know where to find it. At least in this edition of the software you can print to a paper size other than A4 — the previous one was Commonwealth-centric.
I haven’t tried this latest version, but it shows great promise, and I encourage you all to try it out and give John feedback. In a perfect world he’s open source the project or at least let others tinker with the code (for instance, to port the program to something other than Windows). So please give it a shot and maybe we can evolve the perfect village census program.