Free Field Survey Tools

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With the immense leaps of cheaper data storage, cellular availability, and awareness toward open source components, the options to create workflows that were traditionally commercial can now be accessed for free.

One of these great leaps is with field survey tools. Once upon a time (around five years ago) a field surveyor would use sheets of paper in which he would fill out pre-defined questionnaires and would use some expensive GPS device to geo-locate his location or write it down.  These days, the same methodology would be used, but the hardware would be comprised of some kind of a tablet or a smartphone. But what about the survey itself? How to create a simple and geographical related survey?

Using the next methods I’ve collected more than 700 data points in a four month period using three different surveying tools:

survey-israel

Prerequisites

The matrix of options is endless between the surveyors’ capabilities, the back office tech-knowledge and technology, the equipment to be used etc. So here are (my) ground rules for the mobile form technology:

  • Free – No licensing required.
  • Digital – No paper and handwriting so less data loss.
  • Android based – Cheapest and more varied OS.
  • No coding and developing – So anyone can create a form.
  • Easy to deploy – easy to understand and implement.
  • GNSS integration – so the surveyor wouldn’t need to type his location.
  • Dashboard view – So it’ll be easy to navigate and browse results for the survey manager
  • Stable –Dependable and trustworthy.
  • Offline capabilities – In case we’re going out into the wilds…

As appealing as it might seem, I’ve discarded Google’s form option. The problem is that there are surveys that don’t have addresses to which they can relate, and therefore can’t reverse geocode its data. And as it is today there is no option to simply adding your coordinates automatically to a survey.

The Free Solution

So the option that I found was actually a combination between enketo (https://enketo.org/), Ona.io (https://ona.io/), and ODK (https://opendatakit.org/)


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It’s not complex as it may seem.

Enketo is the form technology. If you’re not a programmer, the easiest way to implement it, is to choose the server side interface technology. That would be ona.io (ona.io is one of the free options available to use with enketo. Formhub for example is also a free to use option.)

So, let’s say you want to create a form with some basic functionality, the way to do it will be:

  1. Open account at ona.io
  2. Create a form. Here’s an example of one you can use: http://tinyurl.com/q9lmfcd
  3. Upload it. Done!

You’ll see the web icon lit, and when you’ll press it you’re prompt to enketo – to fill out the details of the form you published. From the example form above, here’s the link: https://mzpli.enketo.org/webform and this is the form itself:

survey-form

Pay attention – the web url, is the link to the form. You can create a barcode from it, email it, add it on your cellular or tablet main screen. It’s that easy. You can even create an apk from it and disguise it as an app (using www.appsgeyser.com for example)

The form above is an easy and simple one. You can create powerful varied surveys, with skip options, drop down lists etc. Check out enekto website for more data.

For us, GIS specialists, I would like address to two things. First, it’s real easy to just activate the GPS during filling a form. Second, the surveyor has the option to draw a polygon or a line. These two options, makes this platform a powerful tool for GIS professionals who needs to work with non-GIS field surveyors.

So why ODK?

The only problem with using enketo, is the location precision. ODK lets you get down to 3-5 few meters (depends on your device) If you want to be more accurate, than you’ll need to use another app – ODK (Play store link: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=org.odk.collect.android)

After downloading it, you’ll need to configure the source of your form. So for that you’ll need to navigate to “General Settings” and to “Configure platform settings” and fill in the url (https://ona.io/USERNAME) and your user name and password.

ODK works offline, and If you control the surveyors devices completely, like if they are designated tablets for work only, you can configure it so things will be lighter and simpler in the workflow.

ODK first screen when staring any survey:

odk-form

Dashboard:

The manager needs to have the data secured, immediately, and downloadable. The dashboard in Formhub or Ona.io presents options to view the collected surveys – either as tabular data, on a map or browsing pictures collected. You can download the data to excel, csv and even as KML. You can make the form public, upload pictures to it (useful when there’s a need to distinguish between birds or flower species), and there’s even a sms option (in beta).

Here’s a sample from the downloadable formats available:

forms

Conclusions

Using no code and not a dime, we can now create powerful field survey forms, that allow us collect demographic, and location awareness data. This data can be implemented through a designated app to improve location accuracy (ODK) or through an HTML5 web form (enketo).

Surveys are usually a cumbersome task. Requiring briefings, printing and delivering sheets of forms to fill, and then collect them and QA the data. Going mobile can save potentially 10-20 minutes per each form. Multiply it with the number of forms, and that’s a lot of time and money saving.
All of what I’ve written is based on my own experience as GIS manager. I have no affiliation towards any of the companies listed above.




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