Been talking about this since before the turn of the century…literally
People that know me know that I’ve been talking about using portable devices to capture fieldwork data since the days of the Palm Pilot and the Handspring Visor. Waaay back in 1998, when personal digital assistants (PDAs) started slowly replacing DayPlanners, which were these calendar books where people would flip to a specific day and write down appointments in the book. These things were what people used before phone calendars.
They looked like this:
What’s this Handspring Visor thing?
Oh yea, I forget that many of you were probably born after personal digital assistants were invented back in 1996, when the PalmPilot debuted. Handspring Visors were basically improved versions of PalmPilots…small handheld devices that ran on the PalmOS and had an open architecture so you could attach other things to one, like a GPS card, or a phone. I had a translucent blue Handspring Visor similar to the one below.
I loved that thing. I added a phone card to it, so it was also my phone. And I experimented with all sorts of software for it.
1998 – tinkering with tech on PalmOS
One of the software apps I installed on my Visor was a flat file form software tool called HanDBase. I built some groundwater sampling forms with it, and tried using this PDA in the field when sampling groundwater monitoring wells. While it worked fine and was easy enough to use (it had dropdown menus, validation controls, ran in offline mode, etc), it didn’t have a form generator component to it. You had to cradle it to your computer via USB and “hotsync” it, which would essentially download all your new forms as single rows in a CSV file.
So yea, you could use this in the field, but you’d end up with a bunch of CSV files, one per device, and there was no actual form printing….you’d be left with an Excel sheet once you merged all the individual CSV files into a single one.
Here’s a gif of what the HanDBase user interface was like
2003 – HUGE productivity gains with PocketPC
This is the year that I stumbled upon a new technology called Adesso. This particular tool was more of an offline client/server synchronization engine, and the Client application ran on PocketPCs, Microsoft’s answer to Palm. The server side solved a lot of issues with flat file tools such as ThinkDB. You could have multiple people running the client software, and all the data could be synced into a single, centralized relational database. And with a Crystal Reports plugin installed, you could also generate beautiful PDFs. Here’s an example of a real output file from Adesso…a groundwater sampling log for a US Navy project site in Orlando, collected in 2006. You cold say that Adesso and us were way ahead of the curve on this.
No one was doing this in 2004 or even 2009
But at my small, 20-person environmental consutling firm (Terraine) we were. We used Adesso client installed on ruggedized PocketPCs made by Trimble and others for a ton of field work, from around 2004-2009 timeframe. Our groundwater sampling log could even calculate stabilization criteria for you. Mind you this was in 2004, when big firms like TetraTech, EnSafe, and others were (and mostly still are) using paper for this stuff.
Collectively, we captured more than 7,000 sampling events in that tool, most of them for US Navy facilities. I remember attending a meeting with the EPA, Florida DEP, The Navy, TetraTech, and us, where the FDEP regulator asked about some specific dissolved oxygen values at a particular well and what the trend of that was. The TetraTech folks started shuffling through a bunch of reports and could not find the info. I pulled up Adesso, did a quick search, and voilá! Here’s the info you need. All in about 15 seconds.
Remember…this was in 2006. Unheard of back then.
Here’s a short video of this old Adesso tool, which is actually still alive and working in some places.
Today’s tech…no excuses now
Today we have a huge pile of incredible hardware…iPhones, iPads, Android phones and tablets, Microsoft Surface devices, Kindle Fire tablets, and more, with near ubuiquitous 4G and even 5G networks, even in remote places. Most everyone already has at least one of these things in their pocket, usually equipped with a ruggedized case. So as a company, you don’t even need to purchase $3K ruggedized devices anymore. Your own employees already bought their own devices! That friction point no longer exists.
We also have a large choice of unbelievable, configurable software tools you can download and use for a few bucks per month, most of which can integrate and play nice with other tools like Sharepoint, OneDrive, etc. No need to build your own code, no need to purchase expensive tools, no server software needed. These things just work, and most can be configured out of the box to fit your particular use cases.
Yet paper field forms persist
Paper forms are still king, even in 2023. I’ll bet that digital field data collection pales in comparison to paper form data collection. Probably 20% digital vs 80% paper. Max 30% digital.
Is this because digital systems are still too cumbersome and expensive? No.
Is it because the technology “just isn’t there yet”? No.
If I had to guess at the single biggest barrier to field tech adoption, I’d say that it’s simply inertia.
We’ve been doing this work this way for 15 years, and it works just fine for us.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
These are true statements. Paper processes that have worked for decades work just fine. Just like the square wheels in the cartoon image above.
But…the world is changing…
Young, entry level workers are already comfortable with sophisticated smartphone software, and less comfortable with antiquated paper processes
What!%? You’re telling me I have to jot things down onto this dumb paper form ???
Huh? You don’t have an app for that ??
No surprise here…the new crop of young professionals starting their careers are perfectly comfortable using their phones for nearly everything. What’s foreign to them is having to use paper and antiquated software. That paper form in the cubbyhole…that MS Access database that was written in 2003…those things are foreign to them.
So yea, there’s no excuse anymore to start tinkering with software tools. The tech is here now, not tomorrow. Why not give it a try? It’s time.
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