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The nature of field data gathering has changed, as mobile devices and notepad computers find wider circulation....

Surveys that once went through arduous roll-up processes are now gathered and digitized quickly.

Now, a new stage of innovation is underway, as back-end systems enable users to employ field data for near-real-time decision making. An example in the geographic information system (GIS) space is ESRI's Survey123 for ArcGIS, which was formally introduced at ESRI's annual user conference, held this week in San Diego.

Being able to quickly plot fresh field data adds a new dimension to analysis, according to Andrew Schroeder, director of research and analysis at Direct Relief, a Santa Barbara, Calif., nonprofit organization that coordinates humanitarian aid and care for people in poverty or emergencies. 

Schroeder has seen benefits from matching data gathered with mobile devices with GIS in distant and embattled parts of the world.

Time is tight

Schroeder and his colleagues first implemented Survey123 in alpha form last year as part of a program to deliver medical aid to Syrian civil war refugees located in Jordan. The specific mission focused on skin problems, which can be a serious issue for refugees in arid climates with limited resources. Medical workers had to work quickly with a population in flux, while identifying conditions that required referral.

"Basically, we are running global logistics for a humanitarian mission. But when people are in the field, it is a fairly condensed time period -- a week to 10 days. The time pressure is very distinctive," Schroeder said.

Medical aid workers using simple Android tablets and Lenovo notebook computers with Survey123 interviewed people for surveys that were handled in the open source XLSForm format, which can include GPS location data, according to Schroeder.

"With ESRI software, we were able to visualize what was going on,'' he said, noting that ArcGIS's mapping capabilities "allowed us to understand some of the dynamics around issues such as who seeks care, where they are from and what their neighborhood conditions are."

The information is helpful in reporting and planning future missions. Just as important is the information's immediate impact; medical workers can get access to maps and analytics early in field missions that are helpful in pinpointing trends and improving patient care.

Form before model

The Survey123 software represents something of an evolution for ESRI, if only for the reason it may introduce a new forms-based approach to application development for location-oriented systems.

Researchers can start with the questions they want answered and infer a data model from that, rather than first starting with a data model, according to Ismael Chivite, senior product manager at ESRI, based in Redwood City, Calif. Overall, changes in field data gathering are quite dramatic, he said.

"In the old days, which were really not so far back, people really needed to use expensive devices to capture data in the field, and to hook it into GPS systems," he said, noting that such high-end systems are still used where ultrahigh precision is required. Now, in cases such as the Direct Relief example, a $100 smartphone provides reasonable precision, from a meter to 25 meters, perhaps, by Chivite's estimation.

The alpha and beta programs for testing Survey123 for ArcGIS were extensive, according to Chivite. He said more than 1,500 organizations worldwide worked on testing the software in action.

Chivite said he expects the range of forms-based smartphone surveying to explode. "Who doesn't need to capture data in the field?" he asked.

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