Say your research studies spatial relationships – maybe it’s the neighborhood effects of vacant buildings, or the spread of an invasive species – and you need to collect data in the field. Traditionally, a project like that could require GPS units, cameras, notebooks, clipboards, and paper-based forms. It’s a lot to lug around, not to mention the effort of importing the data into a relational database or GIS back in the lab.
It might occur to you, as it did to me, that since your smartphone can take photos, record data and locations, and sync with the web, it’s quite possible that one app could combine all those functions.
The people behind Fulcrum had the same idea. Their free app supports mobile data collection by multiple users. Depending on your monthly plan ($0-$20), you can export this data in a plethora of formats: CSV, KML, shapefile, and GeoJSON. It’s only available on iPhone and iPad, but rumor has it an Android app is on its way.
[Update: August 1, 2012. Now available in the Play Store.]
To test drive Fulcrum, I set out on a mini-study of questionable parking practices around Philadelphia. I decided to record make of the car, whether it was out-of-state, why this parking job was so egregious, as well as photographic evidence. (I avoided capturing identifying information like license plates.)
Each project begins with a form created on the Fulcrum website, as elaborate or as simple as your data. Picklists for multiple-choice questions are ideal for standardizing data entry across users; I’d like to see a few more ready-made lists available by default. Conditional logic allows for complex survey design, which I suspect could be overkill for anything less than a full-blown research project. Building forms is pretty simple.
Once the form is created, you add it to your project and start collecting data on your phone. Since the app records the location automatically, data entries and photographs are georeferenced with no extra steps. Sync to the web, and it’s available for download.
The ease of exporting the data is the strength of the app, in my opinion. Export as a KML file enables easy display on Google Maps and Google Earth, while the CSV export allows the most flexibility, since the latitude and longitude fields in the resulting spreadsheet can easily be converted to a map in any number of mapping systems, from ArcGIS, QGIS, to Google Fusion Tables. Other fun features include the ability to stream your data to Google Earth, and to upload background maps for your data gatherers to view on their devices, using MBTiles maps from the free TileMill application.
The downside is the cost. Though the app is free, only CSV and KML data can be exported without charge. Photo and shapefile (for GIS) export requires a monthly plan at up to $20 per user. Judging from their website, this is aimed squarely at business and public services, but with all the potential uses for research and education, I’d like to see a student discount version.
Mapmaking apps for Android: https://appsontap.wordpress.com/2012/05/17/gpsandroid/
Christine’s guide to Online Mapping Tools: http://guides.library.upenn.edu/mapping