The Re-birth of Pen and Paper in Mobile GIS

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Field data collection is vital to the work of many enterprises and government agencies driving important decisions that ultimately affect the bottom line. Many of the current methods and technologies are inconvenient, error-prone, and time-consuming. Whether in engineering, construction, utilities, military, security, law enforcement, or in any industry with a substantial, mobile field force, there is a great demand for reliable systems that quickly bridge the realities of the field to the desks of decision-makers.

That said, how do field employees gather essential data across a vast array of extreme environments and emergency situations ranging from construction sites to underground tunnels, in suspended harnesses, on battlefields, and beyond?

When considering what field data collection tools would be most appropriate or effective for your organization, here are some questions to keep in mind:

  • What is the total cost of ownership of the solution?
  • What training or installation is required to use the solution?
  • Are there communications setup or integration issues to factor in?
  • Is it functional – does it meet your system needs?
  • Is it practical – does it meet the needs of your users?

Collecting Critical Data from the Field is Somewhat Disjointed

Today, a major issue confronting organizations is the lack of efficient methods of data collection and timely dissemination across distributed teams that drive critical decisions.

In the field, pen and paper has been used for decades since it is a common way of gathering information and easy to carry. Construction workers for example, often refer to their use of pen and paper as “huddle and scrawl”, where they gather around a paper map, collaborate, and mark it up with field notes. This tried and true method is familiar for field workers but manually transcribing field notes from paper to computer is not only costly and time consuming, but also a redundant activity that is error-prone since handwriting and sketches can be difficult to decipher. In addition, omissions may also be made if critical points are lost in pages across multiple documents.

As the demand for real-time information has increased, new data collection technologies such as rugged PCs, tablets and PDAs have entered the market. Among the difficulties with deploying these devices are that time is often required to train field workers to use them, and often there is resistance among staff towards changes in business practices. In many instances, these tools may not be convenient for the situation at hand or durable in harsh weather, In addition, the time and support costs for non-working devices tends to be significant. From a practical standpoint, PCs and tablets are heavy, have limited battery life, are hard to see in bright sun, and require the user to attend to the computer rather than the job. While PDAs are highly portable, they are hard to use because they are too small to provide the spatial perspective needed.

It’s not surprising that field employees often reject these current computing technologies and naturally revert back to familiar and more convenient paper versions like notebooks, maps, charts, forms and other documents. When faced with stressful situations while on the job, it is easiest to use what they know best – pen and paper.

Digital pen and paper technology has been around for more than a decade but traditional solutions were primarily one-off products that locked users into proprietary applications or offerings from systems integrators that required the acquisition of special software and had limited integration and functionality. How have “pen and paper” technologies evolved to meet the changing needs of a mobile field workforce?

Simplifying the Process with New Digital Pen and Paper Software Solutions

ESRI, the world leader in the GIS industry, recently partnered with a new company called Adapx to deliver Capturx built for ArcGIS Desktop to their business, government, and education customers.

The Adapx solution has three key components – a compact digital pen, digital paper and Capturx for ArcGIS Desktop software. Users print maps directly from their geodatabase onto regular paper using common 4 color laser, LED or  large format inkjet printers. The paper becomes “digital” when it is watermarked with a special pattern of tiny dots called the Anoto® pattern. Adapx weather-resistant Rite-in-the-Rain notebooks and inks can also be used to record notes in inclement weather.

Capturx enables field works to simply upload filed annotations from paper maps directly into ESRI’s ArcGIS software without manual data entry, making handwritten GIS information instantly available in a digital format and ready to share with colleagues. The digital pen stores data and once docked into its station transforms it into geodatabase features. Using Capturx built for ArcGIS Desktop, field teams can collaborate on hard copy and no longer have to re-enter field data. Since data is shared more frequently and at a faster pace, ESRI’s customers benefit from a more effective use of time and resources as well as a significant return on investment.

Since this solution emulates “business as usual” while out in the field and requires no training as such for personnel, deployment is easy. User adoption has been rapid since Capturx built for ArcGIS Desktop eliminates the need for re-typing notes and at the same time, improves accuracy, enhances collaboration and faster information-sharing. And, data is simultaneously recorded both digitally on hard copy providing a fail-safe back-up system.

Adapx digital paper and pen technology reflects a growing trend in information technology: the incorporation of natural interfaces into the workplace. Behind this school of thought is the bold idea that users don’t need to change, rather existing communication modalities, such as writing and speech, can be seamlessly adapted to proven systems. The successful integration of digital pen and paper technology into mobile operations is a clear example of this trend. What’s next?

The Future of Mobile GIS and Field Force Digitization

GIS has come a long way with organizations being able to access and modify geographic information easier and quicker than ever before. As mobile computing becomes increasingly “the standard”, and specifically as more and more industries discover how to apply the efficiencies that mobile GIS provides, there will be increasing growth in how these applications evolve to meet situation-specific needs.

We are seeing major advances in GIS technologies and ESRI is at the forefront of some very promising developments, in areas such as:

  • Cartography – Improving GIS desktop applications through additional cartographic mapping, analysis, and editing tools and providing user-driven usability enhancements
  • Servers – Evolving a robust server GIS platform to deliver comprehensive geographic information services through a wide variety of clients and client platforms
  • Mobile GIS -Advancing mobile GIS via wireless technology to make organizations and their mobile workforce more efficient and productive.
  • GeoWeb – Expanding the access of information by anyone at any time via the Internet.
  • Geodata Management – Extending comprehensive geodatabase functionality and geospatial data management capabilities

It is certainly an exciting time in the evolution of GIS. Not only are we witnessing this “rebirth of pen and paper” as it relates to mapping, we are also on the verge of other game-changing technologies that provide operational advantages for a wide spectrum of industries.

Ken Schneider is the CEO and president of Adapx, the company that is changing the field economics of field data management. He brings more than 20 years of senior management in a wide range of venture-backed technology companies and industry sectors. Ken can be reached at


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