Efficient and Powerful Field Data Collection through Open Source

When collecting data in the field, giving personnel an effective, efficient and often customized mobile solution, can significantly improve productivity, reduce costs and lead to more accurate and timely reporting. Whether it be for wetland site assessments, stormwater and bioretention pond maintenance, dam and levee inspections or stream restoration monitoring, low-cost open source platforms like Open Data Kit (ODK) can fill the need by facilitating collection of a variety of data types using mobile technology.

Traditional solutions, like robust custom mobile applications, can be developed to address most situations but are often costly and require significant pre-emptive development time. We recently used ODK when asked to conduct site inspections at 52 wetland mitigation sites throughout North Carolina. At each location, field personnel needed to identify any easement violations with documentation including findings, GPS location, and photographs, resulting in the preparation of a formal North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) Site Inspection Report.

Working under a grant from Google, the University of Washington’s Department of Science and Engineering developed ODK as a suite of open source tools to facilitate organizations in authoring, deploying and managing mobile field data collection. Although the Android-based solution was originally created to support worldwide health-related data capture issues being experienced in non-developed regions, use of the platform continues to expand into a wide range of industries, including water and natural resource management. It is now supported by a continually growing community of developers and users.

NCDOT-Mitigation-Inventory-and-Evaluation-of-Stewardship-Sites-Mobile-ScreenshotODK’s three-pronged approach includes a cloud-based repository for data transfer and storage, mobile data collection via Android device using a local app, and a dashboard that supports data viewing and reporting. At its most basic functionality, ODK allows individuals to fill out a paper form on a mobile device. That data, from tens and even hundreds of field personnel, is collected in the cloud-based repository and can facilitate analysis, manipulation, data transfer, and even report generation.

The suite includes tools for form building, validation, and upload as well as data collection, aggregation and transfer. The system is easy to use and implement with no formal development training or coding experience. Even better, there are no database administration tasks such as table creation or permissions. The software populates the tables, relationships and data for you. A host of standard and conditional field types are available, including text fields, drop downs, yes/no, radio buttons, location including longitude/latitude (which is extremely efficient when used with a Bluetooth GPS), photographs, bar code scanning, sketches and even signatures.

In our case, we developed our forms using a simple Excel spreadsheet that, once uploaded, automatically created the mobile entry screens used by our field staff. These mobile forms are intuitive and most field personnel require little to no training to utilize the solution.

Once collected, data can be visualized using a variety of out-of-the-box charting capabilities, analyzed and manipulated for presentation and report generation, or exported into a database or GIS for higher-level analysis and mapping. For NCDOT, data was compiled into a report that can be made available in an ArcGIS Online mapping application (shown in the screenshot below).

The power of the system is in its ease of use—in one instance we were able to turn around a mobile data collection form and associated database in under an hour so that field staff could begin work immediately. In the case of the North Carolina work, NCDOT was so pleased with the results of our first set of wetland site assessments that they assigned the firm an additional 42 locations.

In summary, ODK is a low-cost solution that facilitates measurable cost savings through reducing data capture time and customization expenses. In general, it meets or exceeds most typical mobile field data capture scenarios. Benefits that I’ve found include:

  • More efficient and accurate assessment of site conditions
  • Fast and easy deployment of customized mobile forms
  • Quick turnaround for field collected data
  • Offline data collection
  • Easy export of results into Sharepoint, GIS or other end applications
  • Ability to push form changes on the fly
  • Real-time tracking of progress and field personnel
  • Consistent and controlled data
  • Real-time data delivery

For more information, watch this quick demo of our ODK solution: