For easier, faster and accurate data collection

For easier, faster and accurate data collection


Courtesy: Handheld Group

Scotland's Environment Protection Agency uses mobile technology to save money on a long-term field data collection project.

Nearly three-quarters of Scotland’s land is in agricultural use, and the country's most significant environmental problem is diffuse pollution from agricultural activities. This is especially true of Scotland's waterways. And while 63% of them are rated as being in good condition, under the European Union's Water Framework Directive the Scottish government has committed to raising this figure to 98% by 2027. Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) has identified around 102 priority catchments – waterway regions that need remediation under this plan.

To identify and classify pollution types and sources along every kilometer of the waterways involved, SEPA members would have to walk the entire catchment, recording non-compliant agricultural practices (55 different types) as well as other details such as non-native species and fencing configurations on paper. Then they would enter the data manually into SEPA's central computer system. So the agency developed a pilot project to test the efficiency and cost savings of using rugged handheld computers in the field, equipped with project-specific software that would eliminate paper and paperwork from the equation. The South Esk Priority Catchment was selected as a pilot area for evaluating digital data capture technology in parallel with existing methods.

Finding the best tools for the job
To ensure that the pilot not only proved the improved efficiency of digital data-gathering but also identified the best tools to use to do it, SEPA searched for the right resources. The agency used an open-tender process to select the GeoField field mapping and data collection solution from Sigma Seven, and chose rugged mobile computers from three different manufacturers to test in field trials.

"We selected GeoField as it is fast, lightweight, simple to use and fully customizable to SEPA's business needs," says Dr. Jonathan Bowes, Senior Data Analyst/Modeller for SEPA, "Sigma Seven offered us a highly attractive, independent approach."

Volunteers gathering data along the waterways using their tablets

SEPA identified several specific requirements for the mobile computers. They needed to be an all-in-one solution, meaning no auxiliary units or separate pieces. They had to have GPS location accuracy within 5 meters or less; be waterproof; weigh less than 1.2 kilograms; have long enough battery life to perform for an entire workday in the field on a single charge and have advanced screen technology. Those requirements narrowed the field quite a bit. And the winner that emerged was the Algiz 7, a super-rugged, ultra-mobile tablet PC from Handheld Group.

Mobile technology process provides significant advantages
Workers dispersed throughout the South Esk catchment, gathering data along waterways using their tablets and software, assessing agricultural pollution sources as well as other water-quality impacts caused by factors including river engineering, non-native species and also good practice. A separate team surveyed the same area using pen and paper. GeoField's customised software interface removes unnecessary fields and functions; ensuring data collection is consistent across all workers and highly accurate. Sigma Seven's consultative, task-oriented approach encouraged SEPA field operations staff to provide invaluable feedback from the trials allowing SEPA to fine tune their solution which in turn improved performance of the system in the field. "Working with Sigma Seven has allowed us to iterate through the development of the application to allow us to firm up the way it would look," says Jonathan Bowes.

Electronic data collection virtually eliminates typos and errors, as well as problems with writing legibility, loss of writing utensils and the effects of weather on paperwork.

SEPA reported that the trial has allowed experienced field staff to use the system 'in anger' in a range of challenging conditions such as: rainy and muddy upland catchments, jumping fences and walls, being dropped and bashed, dense vegetation and in steep canyonised sections of rivers.

The data is secure within the ruggedised Algiz 7 hardware. Information is gathered and recorded in real-time, and uploaded nearly immediately into SEPA systems, which can easily and automatically create reports and maps, as well as a full audit trail. So, yes, the process is easier, faster, more accurate and more secure. But what does that mean in the true test – savings?

Team from SEPA at the site

SEPA was able to compare the South Esk catchment work with mobile computers to paper-based working, using a direct comparison of walking 400 kilometers of waterways using each method. In the paper-based procedure the total time expended and paid for was 45 days and roughly £8,000 in labour costs. The same data collection and processing using the mobile technology – from walking in the field to integration into the GIS system – took eight days of labor time, total.

That represents a savings of more than 80% in labour costs – or roughly £6,400. To put that into the context of the first project segment of just 14 priority catchments, the estimated labor savings are £708,000. And projecting that to the entire project of 102 catchments, the savings could be enormous.

The pilot project has pointed the way to a streamlined future for SEPA's pollution-assessment initiative. After assessing roughly 12,000 kilometers of rivers using the traditional paperwork approach, SEPA is now transitioning to a purely digital capture system around 26 Algiz 7 tablets combined with the GeoField Exchange software that will integrate with SEPA's enterprise Oracle and spatial databases.