Benefits of Automated Electronic Field Data Collection Workflow

Efficient collection of field data is an integral part of any environmental project. Regulated industrials, consultants, and government agencies are currently digitizing their workflows to reap the benefits of the digital transformation. Consider the following benefits of electronic data collection if you are still collecting field data manually with paper forms or spreadsheets.

Instant Data Availability

For many environmental projects, data sets must be collected and turned into information as quickly as possible. The mix of complexity and time sensitivity is posing challenges to companies who must find ways to transform the collected data into the required outputs efficiently and in a timely manner.

Traditionally, field data have been collected on paper forms or spreadsheets, which were then transcribed into some digital form in the office. Turning this manual data into digital data for reporting outputs included various steps that often began with deciphering the field forms and typing them into tables, potentially introducing transcription errors leading to data mistrust. Once available in a digital form, data were then loaded into various applications for data analysis and reporting.

Electronic data collection tools allow field crews to use an intuitive interface for data collection that can provide dynamic feedback while in the field. Field crews then use the electronic data collection tools to deliver data electronically to a central database, where new datasets are instantly available for analysis. The project team gets immediate feedback and can start to draw conclusions instead of waiting for new data, possibly for weeks.

Implementing a system with a digital field data workflow leads to more benefits that are directly connected to the automated data transfers. When new datasets are automatically loaded into a central system, data analysts can also automate their reports, which lets them focus on the decision-making process without worrying about the administrative and technical parts of data visualization and reporting.

As soon as the new results enter the database, pre-configured reports, maps, diagrams, and charts can be accessed and exported. The following example demonstrates an EQuIS EnviroInsite document with cis-1,2-dichloroethene concentration contours that automatically update as soon as the new dataset is uploaded to the database. New data are instantly converted to useful information. Notice changes in concentration contours caused by data loaded to the database.

Data Quality

Electronic data collection forms provide real-time verification tools for the field crews to ensure that the data entered meet pre-defined quality standards. The following are some examples of common data checks that can help the data collectors in the field:

  • Completeness Checks: Are all required fields populated? Did you miss something?
  • Range Checks: Are all the results within a logical range? For example, a pH value of 75 would not be accepted but a value of 7.5 would be accepted.
  • Reference Values: Do all reference values follow the conventions in the database? Smart forms will include drop-down lists that only allow the selection of valid reference values.

Another tool to increase data quality in the field is the display of historical data ranges. A common example is the comparison of new water level measurements against the historical range or trend. Outliers that are significant can be identified immediately, allowing the field team to verify the measurement while still on location. In the image below, new data are instantly compared to historical data. All errors are instantly seen and not accepted.

A digital system also provides tools to link every field form to the users who are collecting the datasets. Forms can be finalized with a digital signature and attachments, such as photos or voice memos, can be included. These file attachments will automatically be linked to the sampled or location record when the datasets are uploaded to the database. Georeferenced files are then instantly available in the office.

Supporting Tools for Field Crews

In addition to the above data quality tools, smart phones or tablets with electronic data collection forms provide a range of supporting tools for the field technicians allowing for more efficient and accurate data acquisition.

Mapping and GPS

Running a digital field data application on a mobile device like a smart phone or tablet allows field staff to utilize the built-in GPS device or an external device for orientation. New locations can be entered digitally while capturing the coordinates (even in various coordinate systems). Other features include tools to help field technicians find the way to the next sampling location by showing the direction on maps.

Instrument and Internet of Things (IoT) Interfaces

Migrating to digital field data workflows allows the field teams to import data from measurement devices directly into the database, where data are immediately available for reporting. Typical devices include data loggers, weather stations, piezometers, multimeters, drones, and other sensors. By directly connecting the device to the database, common sources of error are removed from the workflow.

Integration of Barcode Devices

Connecting a barcode reader further improves data quality by reducing transcription errors while letting the field teams focus on more important tasks than typing in sample names, location names, or numbers. Barcodes can be associated to different record types, which are defined by the data manager.

Benefit Summary

  • Data are instantly available after electronic submittal from the field
  • Secure and efficient data transfers with digital user certificates
  • Automated data verification and loading
  • Automated reporting and visualization following pre-configured templates
  • More accurate data through initial data validation in the field
  • Powerful field tools including GPS, barcode scanners, and sensor interfaces
  • Tracking of field team or subcontractor performance

EQuIS™ is the world’s most widely used environmental data management workflow and efficiently manages the environmental sample data for thousands of organizations. Learn more about our newest field data application, EQuIS Collect, here. EQuIS Collect allows staff to collect any data easily in the field on phones, tablets, or PCs with a simple, user-friendly application that works on and offline.

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