Two main types of environmental apps

In general, there are 2 basic types of solutions for environmental field data collection: A dedicated solution specifically-designed for environmental use cases, and generic forms software, designed for a wide variety of use cases.  Both have pros and cons.  Let’s look at both:

1. Dedicated environmental field apps

A dedicated environmental app is one that is built specifically for an environmental use case(s).  Examples include apps built for:

  • Asbestos and lead-based paint inspection app (FieldFlow)
  • Wetland delineation app(Ecobot, Wildnote)
  • Environmental consulting field app (QNOPY, SampleServe)
  • Environmental compliance and monitoring app (Ecesis, Locus)
  • Due diligence (Phase I ESA) app (GeoJot+)
  • Cultural resources app (Arches)
  • Air monitoring app
  • Combinations of the above

 Pros

  • Custom-built app platforms that solve a specific problem/use case are generally fine-tuned to solve that specific problem, without needing to do a lot of customization.
  • They don’t need to be “genericised” to handle a wider spectrum of uses cases.  As such, certain aspects of the platform can  be “hard-coded” to save development time.
  • Some things that can be easily handled via hard-coding simply can’t be handled in a generic platform, or handled elegantly at least.

Cons

  • Custom built apps usually have a specific and set way of doing things within the app, meaning you have to adopt your way of doing things into their way of doing things, however the app architect thinks it should be done (not you).
  • Workflows and form templates are typically built out to handle a wide range of customer needs within that use case, meaning that they might be overkill for your own needs.  A classic example of this is MS Word.  It has a huge pile of options that you will probably never use…and which only a small handful of people use. Ditto with some custom applications: some apps have a ton of options to satisfy one particular important customer, which means your field folks need to learn and efficiently use a more complex interface.  Your folks basically have to adapt their way of doing things into the app’s way of doing things.  Not something that environmental field tech veterans are excited about.

2. Generic forms software

Generic forms apps are on the opposite side of the spectrum.  You can design and build your own custom forms with a generic forms platform. However, it’s not as easy as it sounds, building out a solution can take time, can be overwhelming when you are already busy with billable work, you might end up picking the wrong tool (after spending a long time developing forms in their platform), and it might feel like you are trying to reinvent the wheel.  As with a dedicated environmental field app, there are pros and cons:

Pros

  • You can design most anything you want to design or need.  If your data collection needs are quite unique, no dedicated app can accomodate this very well, if at all.
  • You can build exactly what you want, and nothing more.  Your forms don’t need to be overly complicated with a bunch of bells and whistles that you will never use.  Just leave those out and keep it simple.  A good example of this is Zoom.  When Zoom came out, there was plenty of competition: WebEx, GotoMeeting, join.me, logmein, etc.  Who won during the pandemic?  The one with the simple interface and ease of use: Zoom.

Build EXACTLY what you want…
and nothing more

  • You don’t have to change your work practices to meet the app’s way of doing things.  Instead, you can adapt the software into the way you do things.  As an example, there are some dedicated environmental apps that require a very different approach to chain-of-custody forms, in essence forcing you to use a field printer to print container labels.  No one I know wants to lug around more hardware into the field, especially if virtually every single environmental lab in the USA already provides pre-printed container labels for free.

Cons

  • Building out your own set of unique forms, key performance indicators you want to track, and a dashboard takes time, dedication, and patience.  It’s not something that can be done in an instant, and you have to think about the system holistically at the macro scale as well as from the field user’s point of view…will the system provide adequate high-level information for the project managers…can the forms be designed in a way that is intuitive and easy enough that the bulk of your field staff will actually embrace them instead of shun them?  Doing this the right way takes some time and effort
  • Some things can’t be replicated very well or at all with generic forms software.  For example, building a low-flow sampling form with DO, conductivity, temp, and ORP calculations between sample readings to tell you if the well has “stabilized” is very challenging to build in a generic tool because calculations would have to not only be done across a row, but between rows in a table.  I don’t know of any generic tool that can do this, yet.

Why generic might be better

In my opinion, the pros outweigh the cons for using a generic platform (instead of a dedicated environmental app) for your environmental field data collection system.  Here’s why:

  • It’s customizable…build exactly what you want and nothing more
  • The transition from paper to digital is a whole lot easier if your digital tool isn’t a radical change in the way you do things, but rather, an extension of what you already do.

It takes time and effort to design your own forms, KPIs, and dashboard. But it also takes time to implement and familiarize your staff on how to use a dedicated environmental tool and learn its process.  That’s not done in an instant either.  I’ve heard horror stories of companies purchasing a dedicated environmental software system (for buckets of $), stuck in a 12-month contract, only to abandon it because the forms just never worked quite right or looked right, and the field folks refused to use it.

With a generic tool, you also don’t have to adapt your own process into an app’s way of doing things.  You can do it the other way around, where the software adapts to your way of doing things.  And as is typical with dedicated environmental apps, you can’t design your own forms.  You have to use their forms, or pay them a fee to customize some of their existing forms into a format that works for you.  There’s also the fact that most dedicated environmental apps focus exclusively on a particular sub-vertical like asbestos work, meaning that your organization might have to adopt more than one platform to address it’s environmental data collection needs.  And cost…most dedicated platforms generally cost more on an ongoing basis than a generic tool.

The case for XForms as your environmental field data collection and reporting system

There’s a few modern generic tools you can use to build your environmental field data collection system, including:

  • JotForm
  • GoCanvas
  • DeviceMagic
  • FormStack
  • Fulcrum
  • XForms
  • PenDragon
  • AirTable

You should check out some of them.  Each of the above generic forms platforms has their own set of pros and cons, nuances, and pricing models.  All are good choices.  For sake of this article, I’m going to discuss some unique aspects of XForms that make it a great choice for your environmental field data software tool of choice, and how to start building out an environmental data collection system for your organization.

Build your own forms.  With the XForms form template designer, you can build, edit/tweak any kind of field data collection form on your own.  Contrast that to dedicated environmental apps, where you usually have to hire and pay the developers to build your forms if they either don’t exist or if your particular needs differ substantially from what they have in their forms library.

XForms has a very unique and simple-to-use form template designer that anyone can figure out in a matter of minutes.  It’s not rocket science, and that’s on purpose.

Can you build intelligent tables? Most of the generic forms platforms don’t even have configurable table grids as an option.

But XForms does, and the table grid features it has are fairly robust.  For example, you can build a soil boring form, where a user would enter soil depth details like soil description, blowcounts, PID readings, etc per depth interval, each interval as a new row in a table grid.

Or a methane gas emission leak survey form, where your field tech would collect diameter, velocity, and temperature readings, and then the system would auto-calculate the emissions rate in standard cubic feet per minute, like this: {velocity}*3.14159*(({diam}/12/2)*({diam}/12/2))*60/({temp}+460)*520.   A table grid like this is either extremely difficult or impossible to build in most generic forms software tools.

Here’s an example of the XForms table editor in action.

You can easily do these things in XForms for any type of form that requires lots of repetitive information in a one-to-many relationship within a specific form type.

XForms tables have these features available to them:

  • Multiple columns and rows
  • Pre-filled cells
  • Lock rows
  • Read-only columns
  • Calculated columns using other numeric columns
  • Signature column (not even possible in Excel)
  • Optional footer with SUM, AVERAGE, or Count column values
  • Filtered count (e.g., to count the # of checkboxes checked in a table)
  • Optional “Add More Rows” button displayed to the user

Here’s a short video showing how a table operates in user mode on an iPad.

Automatic geolocation and other metadata capture.  Whenever your field team starts a new form in XForms, the system captures their latitute, longitude, user_id, and date_timestamp values.  This is automatic.  Of course, the user has to allow the app to capture this information via. a permissions popup, but otherwise this is automatic.

Once you have geolocation data, you can do some interesting things with it.  In the XForms dashboard, for example, you can map the location of where your forms were initiated.  You can also export this information directly to Excel for import into your GIS software.

A simple dashboard metaphor, with bird’s-eye view of your data and drill down capability.  In XForms, the very first thing you will see on the reporting side is a dashboard with blocks that represent the forms submitted by your field crew.  The large the block, the more forms of that form type that have been submitted for the time period selected.

When you click on a block at the top-level dashboard view, the screen will refresh and display key performance indicators for that particular form type.  These are fully customizable and can be:

  • Groupings of like values (good to use for listbox and checkbox fields in your forms)
  • Average
  • SUM

The mobile app runs on everything, even laptops and desktops.  This means that you can transition your folks into using a digital system slowly, without going from zero to 100 in one fell swoop.  What I mean by this is that your field folks can continue to use paper forms just the way they always have, hand those to clerical staff, and then have that clerical staff transcribe the info into XForms using the mobile app running on a laptop or desktop.  While this is technically double-entry of the same info, its a way to ease some of your field folks—those least comfortable with change—into a new system.

Not the first time we’ve built an environmental field data collection system…

This isn’t our first rodeo building an environmental data collection system.  We go back to the dinosaur era of 2004, when PocketPCs were the latest and greatest mobile technology.   This is back in the day before anything other than EQuIS was available in the marketplace.

Back then, with my old company Terraine, we built an inexpensive groundwater monitoring well database collection system using Adesso, the precursor to XForms (fun fact: the same person that designed Adesso is the chief technical officer of XForms).  The system we built using the Adesso platform about 18 years ago was used widely at all of our US Navy and US Army Corps of Engineers projects, using handheld T-Mobile Pocket PC phones as well as ruggedized Trimble devices such as the Nomad and Yuma. Stakeholders including TetraTech (the Navy CLEAN contractor at the time), the US Navy, the USEPA, and the Florida DEP had access to the data collected into this system.  Funny thing is that back then, I’d occasionally hear from folks in much larger firms who ridiculed this stuff…. I wonder what they think now of this kind of thing.  Maybe they have come around by now…..maybe not.  Some folks will always be critics of anything falling outside the status quo.

More than 7,200 well sampling events were recorded in that software app we built back then, and the system still works today, even on Windows 11, a testament to our core software development team of building things to last.  It’s still really easy to search and sort through all of those records.  Now imagine sifting through 7,200 paper forms from 2006 instead of using a digital system.  It’s quite clear—crystal clear—that digitization of data like this just makes sense.

Here’s a screenshot of an old sampling event form in Adesso.

Here’s a screenshot of a sampling log from December 2006 generated from the Adesso system we used back then that had a Crystal Reports plugin.  These printed forms still look pretty damn good, even by today’s standards.

User behavior and change management matters… A LOT!!

What we have seen over the years is that new system adoption is greatest if you welcome feedback from the people who will actually be using the software and make them part of the development process from the very beginning, easing them into it over time.

The opposite—selecting a tool, then configuring/customizing it within your IT staff and then forcing your field staff to use it—usually ends up as either a disaster or an adoption rate less than 10%, essentially dooming your digital transformation goals.  We know this stuff well, having gone through it multiple times using various field work software initiatives.

One thing we have in XForms that can ease the transition in your org from paper to digital is that the mobile app component can run on a laptop and desktop over a web browser.  The user interface is exactly the same as the native app, meaning there’s nothing new to learn.  And all functions work on the browser version, even signatures, the camera driver, and offline capability.  So basically, your field crews can continue to use paper forms, hand those to someone at the office, and have that person use the browser version of the mobile app to enter the field data.  Easy-peasy, and your folks who are hesitant about a digital initiative can continue doing what they’ve always done until they are comfortable with the new system.

Here’s a screenshot of the mobile app interface on a Chrome browser running on a Mac. Notice its the same as the native app.  All features work the same too, even tables, camera access, signature blocks, etc.  XForms Mobile works on all modern browsers including Chrome, Safari, FireFox, and MS Edge.

An example of an environmental field app in use today, built with XForms

Full disclosure: I work at Mid-Atlantic Associates (Mid-Atlantic) full-time.  Mid-Atlantic has embraced XForms fully for virtually all of their field data collection needs.

However, it didn’t start out that way.  When I was first hired at Mid-Atlantic, one of my initiatives was to look at improving efficiencies internally, both from a reporting aspect as well as a field data gathering aspect.  For field data, I first looked at SampleServe, and then at QNOPY.  The issue we had with SampleServe was a roadblock from one of our main labs, which was opposed to using specific labels for sample container and a different process for a small account like ours.  Their main argument was that labels are already provided for free by them, so why bother printing labels in the field and putting the onus on the field team to do that.  That plus when I took their field printer into the field, it was raining that day, we were at a very busy truck terminal, and just didn’t have time to mess around with the Android tablet and printer combination—getting the 2 devices to talk to each other, inserting the blank label roll correctly, learning the tablet’s user interface and entering sample info, and dealing with light rain—when we already had a supply of pre-printed labels.

Next was QNOPY.  At the time we looked at it, their system was pretty nice and a solid argument to give it a go.  However, by then XForms Mobile (generic forms platform) was starting to come together, so we opted to give XForms—even in its infancy—a try instead.

Real-world testing environment

The implementation of XForms at Mid-Atlantic has enabled us to learn what works, likes and dislikes, system gaps, problem areas, wish list and more from actual users of the platform for their particular environmental use cases.  In fact, I use it myself for my projects and field work.  Not every software developer team out there gets this sort of real-life exposure…a lot of them develop software while in their cozy office digs or comfortable home, oblivious to how a tool actually functions from a busy field person’s perspective, someone who is:

  • battling the weather (i.e., super cold hands with gloves on, or really hot and sweaty, rain, wind, super bright sunlight making it difficult to see a tiny screen, etc)
  • under high-pressure time constraints
  • hoping that equipment doesn’t malfunction

Integrations

The efforts at Mid-Atlantic have given us time to fine-tune the system to Mid-Atlantic’s exact needs and wishes, including the following integrations.

  • Whenever a form is submitted, an email is fired to the project manager of that project, with some basic details within the body of the email and a PDF of the completed form attached  to it.
  • A copy of this PDF is also uploaded into the project’s OneDrive folder.
  • Photos (if any were collected) are extracted and uploaded to the project’s photos folder.

All of these integrations are fully automated, with no human involvement whatsoever.  Field folks just do their job, and the system does all of that other busywork like generating PDFs and inserting them into the project folder in the company’s cloud account.

Here’s a list of some of the forms in XForms being used at Mid-Atlantic:

  • AFVR/MMPE Data Form
  • Area of Concern Checklist
  • Air Sampling Form (including vapor intrustion/sub-slab project data)
  • Business Interruption Management Plan Checklist
  • Chain of Custody Form (both analog and digital)
  • Field Notes
  • Air Sparge/SVE Treatment System O&M Form
  • Dual-Phase Extraction Treatment System O&M Form
  • Phase I ESA Site Visit/Walk-Over
  • Photo Log
  • Soil Boring
  • Soil Excavation Log (for soil removal projects)
  • Pre-Clearing/Drilling Form (utility locate data)
  • Drilling Request Form (goes through approval workflow with a client)
  • Tailgate Safety Meeting
  • Vapor Intrustion Monitoring System Inspection
  • Water Supply Well Sampling
  • Water Levels Form
  • Well Abandonment Form (including the NCDEQ-formatted form)
  • Well Construction Form
  • Well Sampling Form
  • Well Surveying Form

Bottom line…

No dedicated environmental app can be as comprehensive as a generic software tool can be, nor can they be customized the way a generic tool can be customized.  Integrations with a generic tool are usually easier (because of their open and well-documented APIs), and with XForms running on laptops and desktops, the transition to digital can be taken at a pace that works for your own (perhaps hesitant and skeptical) crew.  If you design your field forms with the help of your field crews from the very beginning (something that is easier to do with a generic tool), then user adoption within your ranks is greatly increased.

Want to learn more about XForms?