Sunday, March 1, 1998

The PalmPilot and field data collection


By Stu Slack

Most of the million or so users of the PalmPilot think of it only as a great personal organizer. And it is--I no longer use my paper organizer for appointments, to do lists, or addresses (much to the paper supplier's chagrin). But the device is really capable of much, much more. From the start, Palm built the PalmPilot and its associated software to be flexible and extensible. At Windward, I spend most of my time designing and developing custom solutions for the PalmPilot platform.

To me, the most interesting problems are those where I can eliminate an existing paper-based process. A good example is collecting data in the field. Census takers, inspectors, people conducting surveys, child protective services agents, and lots of other folks spend too much time filling out paper forms, and then transcribing the data into a computer-readable format for back-end analysis and storage. This is both inefficient and boring. People working in the field can accomplish much more with data collection applications that can store data electronically and load it into back-end systems.

In this article, I look at field data collection applications in general, and examine one case where I was able to eliminate a particularly nasty paper-based process.

What are field data collection applications?

To start with, let's look at the nature of field data collection applications. Examples include surveys (such as opinion surveys, interviews, census data collection, etc.), data collection from remote equipment, inspections, and so on. What are some of the common attributes of these applications? While not an exhaustive list, certainly the following characteristics apply:

  • Users will be untrained, or you may not have budget for complete user documentation.
  • Users will collect data over a long span of time, necessitating efficient and robust data-storage techniques.
  • Synchronization sessions will be infrequent and may involve large amounts of changed data.
  • Users may use the application in "unfriendly" environments (noisy, bad light, dusty or dirty conditions, and so on).
  • You'll need to integrate the data your users collect with custom back-end data storage and analysis systems.
  • Your solution needs to look like an appliance, not a general-purpose computer

These characteristics combine to establish a special environment for field data collection applications, one that makes challenging demands on solutions aimed at that market.

How well suited is the PalmPilot to field data collection?

The best field data collection applications are those that deal effectively with the particular challenges raised by the specific situation. Of course, not all such applications will raise the same issues, and each one has its unique characteristics. Therefore, building on a flexible foundation is crucial to success in the field.