Written by Jim Young, who ran an 8(a) certified environmental consulting firm from 1992-2015 prior to cofounding XForms.

We were using PocketPC technology on military sites as far back as 2003, when everyone else was using paper forms

Its funny how today all of these giant firms like AECOM, Terracon, CH2M, TetraTech, Geosyntec, EnSafe, etc. boast about how innovative and advanced they are when it comes to using technology to do their work on behalf of their clients.  For proof, just take a look at their public-facing websites, and you will read about their use of drones, 3D visualization software, advanced science applications in the field, even generative AI.

And yet, when my 20-person environmental consulting firm started using an offline synchronization engine called Adesso in conjunction with PocketPCs waaay back in 2003, those types of firms mostly scoffed at it.  “Nothing to see here” was usually the response.  Or “we are a Microsoft-certified and ESRI shop, so we use real tools here, not that toy Adesso thingy”. Translated into human-speak, that usually meant “we can charge our clients 20X more if we build them a custom solution using ArcGIS-based tools, and they won’t blink.”  Bottom line: in the consulting industry, it all comes down to billable hours and utilization rates.  Efficiency in the field is not a priority.

Check out this old picture I found of one of our guys conducting low-flow groundwater sampling from a monitoring well. This particular picture was from 2008 at a US Navy site that had undergone Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC). Note that in the far background some coolers are set up on a different well.  We typically had multiple field crews paired up on these large military projects.  The typical setup included a water level indicator, peristaltic pump with Teflon-lined tubing, a YSI 556MP multimeter, and a ruggedized PocketPC equipped with Adesso and our EnvironPro application.

How it worked

For its day, Adesso was an incredibly useful tool.  It was essentially a Client/Server database engine focused on offline capability.  The Adesso Client would run on any Windows or Windows Mobile device (i.e., PocketPCs, laptops, and desktops) in offline mode.  So you could run it without an internet connection. Whenever you had access to the internet, either by cradling the PocketPC to a laptop and using Microsoft ActiveSync, or directly over a cell network on the device, Adesso Client would connect to Adesso Server and synchronize all changes in both directions, based on sync rules you could configure for each user, table, and even field in a table.  The sync granularity available in Adesso Server was unmatched by anything else.

Here’s a couple of screenshot of the Adesso Server configuration settings for EnvironPro, the application we used for collecting field data from 2003-2012.

 

And here’s an animated clip taken from an old video illustrating Adesso Client in action (running one of our applications) on a ruggedized Trimble PocketPC.

 

Crystal Reports output forms

PDF output forms from this system that we designed included fully-formatted PDF forms, complete with signatures and logos.  To print these to PDF or to a printer, you would open Adesso Client on your PC, navigate to the well sampling event you wanted to print, scroll to the Print tab, and click on the Print button.  Here’s an example of one of those from a Study Areas at the former Naval Training Center in Orlando.  Mind you…this particular form is from March 2007, 4 years into us using this technology for field work.

The benefits of digital data…even back in the early 2000’s

I remember sitting in a conference room during one of our large meetings, which was attended by multiple stakeholders…the US Navy, Florida DEP, TetraTech (the Navy CLEAN contractor), and us (the long-term monitoring contractor).  The FDEP regulator asked a question about the dissolved oxygen levels during purging at a particular well.  The TetraTech folks starting sifting through quarterly reports while I pulled up Adesso Client on my laptop, typed in the well ID in the search field, and then sorted the data by sampling date.  It took me a few seconds to pull up all the historical purge data for that well, while the TetraTech folks continued looking in their paper reports.

By the time the TetraTech folks found the data on their printed paper reports, we were already showing all of that monitoring well’s historical data on screen and sorting/filtering the natural attenuation dataset in a live setting.

Take a look at the screenshot below, which illustrates low-flow final stabilization criteria values from a particular well sampled 23 times from June 2003 through September 2011.  It takes seconds to quickly view these natural attenuation trends, something that is challenging to do using paper forms.  Also, note that this is a March 2024 screenshot of that old Adesso system, which is still running on Windows 11.  Back in 2003, it was running on Windows XP and PocketPC, which later became Windows Mobile.  Pretty amazing that a technology developed during the Windows XP era is still functional on the most recent version of Windows some 20+ years later.

Now imagine trying to figure out natural attenuation trends using paper forms for 20-year old data.  You would have to find all of those old PDF reports, sift through the appendices, and—if you were lucky enough to find all that data—would probably have to transcribe final stabilization parameter values onto Excel to be able to view them together…something that would take a few hours of time (instead of a few seconds in a database).

 

How this experience translates into better form design

Clearly we have experienced what its like to conduct environmental field work, as evidenced by all the environmental sampling and inspection work we have conducted in a past life on military installations.  Here’s a short list of sites we’ve used digital software technology on for low-flow groundwater monitoring:

  • Naval Training Center Orlando
  • Naval Air Station Cecil Field
  • Naval Air Station Jacksonville
  • Naval Air Station Corpus Christi
  • Naval Weapons Industrial Reserve Plant Dallas
  • Naval Weapons Station Charleston
  • Marine Corps Reserves Depot Parris Island
  • Marine Corps Reserves Depot Camp Lejeune

And that’s just the US Navy work we did. We also have used this technology on US Army Corps of Engineers projects in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kentucky.

Not every mobile forms platform company has this sort of field experience.

But we do.

And that translates to a good understanding of the pain points involved when it comes to conducting field work.  From the pain of obtaining security badges to get on base, dealing with horrid weather, working through the night on the tarmac with very specific rules of engagement, battling mosquitos and ticks, and having to be McGyver whenever something goes wrong (because inevitably it will), we’ve been there, just like your own field crews.  Empathy comes to mind.  Something that computer programming teams that have never been on a jobsite simply do not have.

Want to give XForms a try?

Click/tap the button below.