Software Review: Digital Pen Excels at Data Capture on the Field

June 5, 2008
Efficient decision-making based on field data is always core for our work in engineering and architecture, inventory and asset management, and environmental science, so we must often collect high volumes of geospatial information.

To cut time and costs and make quick, well-informed decisions, we recently opted for Capturx for ArcGIS Desktop, a new “digital pen” technology.

Previously, our field force captured data with traditional pens and paper. Personnel liked this method because it let them “huddle and scrawl” around maps and documents. But because of logistical problems such as the long time lag between data collection and entry into the central database, the old method was increasingly unfeasible. We tried tablet PCs, but they were uncomfortable to carry and easily dropped. We found GPSs lacked menus with enough options for the level of detail we needed.

In contrast, the Capturx digital pen is efficient and easy to use. Field staff and engineers take notes, make comments, and draw sketches or diagrams on paper maps as they normally would, and the digital pen records each stroke as “digital ink.” Maps are printed on regular paper that is watermarked by a special pattern to record the geospatial component of the data. Back at the office, staff dock the pen into a USB port on a PC or laptop. The ArcGIS software syncs the captured data into the central database and makes the marked-up maps immediately available without additional work.

The pen has proven especially useful in recent wetland delineation projects. These are a response to meet nationwide permits under section 404 of the Clean Water Act. Environmental engineers must mark up maps during site visits to show the current condition of areas thought to be wetlands. As permits require, our engineers annually take inventory of the total number of trees in wetlands and their measurements. This helps keep track of whether trees are growing and can survive on their own without harm from animals or disease.

Each time we build a reservoir or put in a water pipeline, we take care not to destroy too much habitat. Field personnel use the pen to note on maps the number of trees by species native to the specific area. We also evaluate and note soils that do well in local environments. Using the pen to document this kind of data makes it easy for government bodies to monitor our work as permits require. For example, for all trees destroyed, we must create so-called mitigation areas where the same species of trees get replanted according to specified ratios. The government checks our records as part of the long-term management of trees.

The pen also comes in handy for our asset-management teams. Here, field personnel such as planners, engineers, and construction workers record inventories of gas, water, sewer, and electrical systems. Data might include, for example, model, size, and condition of power poles, and where they are spatially located on a map. This information populates utility models for doing detailed system analyses.

So far, our experience with the digital pen has been smooth with no downside. One intangible benefit is that field and office staff have taken to the solution. In the near future, we plan on also using Capturx for AutoCAD so we can instantly mark up, annotate, and redline any CAD drawing, then upload the field data into AutoCAD on return to the office.

The digital-pen technology is available from Adapx, 821 Second Ave., Suite 1150, Seattle, WA 98104, adapx.com

—Mark Valentino

Mark Valentino is the GIS coordinator at Freese and Nichols, a Texas-based engineering and architecture firm.

An engineer uses the Capturx digital pen to mark up a map in the field (left). Back at the office, staff dock the pen into a USB port on a computer. The ArcGIS software synchs the captured data into the central database and makes the marked-up maps immediately available without any additional work (inset).

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