March 23, 2006
 

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Posted: 09.01.05

Geography Lessons

Two coasts use one solution for more efficient fieldwork.
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By Adam Brickman




Wildfires in the summer of 2004 cost San Diego County over 2,000 homes; the damage created by the fires was enough to be declared a catastrophe. In response, the Department of Planning and Land Use renewed interest in a program to catalog, survey and clear densely wooded residential areas to prevent future fire property damage. To do so, however, would require a greatly expanded mobile worker base and, more importantly, a more efficient way of covering and classifying the 16,000 acres the project required.

The first step in the program involved obtaining written approval from landowners. Consent forms were sent via USPS mail throughout the county, detailing the operation and asking for permission to enter and clear the land. Once the forms started trickling in, fieldwork could begin. Most of the affected areas were rural, meaning no consistent road access, no real address or landmarks and sizes varying
from half-acre plots to hundreds of acres. The county quickly realized that a paper-based system wouldn’t do the job. Through grants from the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), San Diego turned to a mobile geographic information system (GIS).

Justin Mank, a GIS analyst with the Department of Planning and Land Use in San Diego County, oversaw the deployment. “When we found out we were going to be doing the tree mapping program, we realized our paper system would be inadequate,” he says. Following the lead of the NRCS, Mank employed ESRI’s ArcPad, a customizable mobile GIS application that’s designed to run on handhelds and mobile devices, allowing mobile workers to view and analyze up-to-date geographic information.

Mank used ESRI’s Application Builder to customize the ArcPad software. Despite the need to tweak the original programming, designing the application didn’t take long. “It took me about a week and a half to create the initial version,” says Mank, “some of the add-ons took a couple extra hours, but the original forms were very simple to develop.” Assisted by the online courses offered by ESRI’s Virtual Campus, the program was quickly adapted and readied for deployment.

Equipped with Panasonic Toughbook CF-18s with integrated GPS receivers, GIS analysts accompanied foresters to survey the land. Using the ArcPad software, they were able to pull up a map of their designated work area and identify individual land parcels. Parcels that had already been surveyed were marked with a crosshatch pattern. Parcels that the department had permission to enter and survey were designated with a “1,” while parcels still waiting for permission were marked with a “0.”

The department was able to survey “phase one,” the areas most in danger, in about three months. Using a paper system, Mank says, “it would have taken twice as long with a fraction of the accuracy … basically I think it would have been impossible to do without mobile GIS.”

The Trimble GPS units, built directly into the Panasonic Toughbooks, were the only problem for the San Diego analysts. Because of satellite configuration, GPS information was sometimes unavailable in the field, resulting in lost man-hours and inefficient work scheduling. Despite this hardship, however, Mank mostly sings the praises of the mobile system. “In terms of technology used, this is what we’d go back to, definitely. I think we’re technologically at the top of the game on this scale at the county level.”

Branching Off

ArcPad’s uses reach beyond the tree-clearing business; the San Diego office has also developed a damage assessment program based on the same software for future use. If hit by more fires or by another natural disaster like a flood, the county will be able to use an automated system to relate damage information to a centralized server. “In the past, this was all done by paper, but now we have an application.”

California isn’t the only state to use ArcPad to help control the damage created by a natural disaster. The North Carolina Department of Public Health has adopted the same software to track disease outbreak after hurricanes and tropical storms. Using the GPS to navigate roads and to survey physical damage, teams can use electronic forms with pulldown menus and send information back to the home office.

Summer 2004 proved to be a destructive time for North Carolina, when an unusually strong hurricane season climaxed in the middle of August with Hurricane Charley. The state set up a Rapid Needs Assessment (RNA) Team and equipped them with the ArcPad software, this time running on HP iPAQ handhelds. With the help of the ArcPad StreetMap Extension software and a customized RNA form on the handheld, the teams were trained in under three hours to use the devices.

Using the GPS-based StreetMap Extension the teams were able to view their positions and calculate driving distances. Once onsite, the teams interviewed households and entered survey responses into the electronic form. The information was then sent back to the office and analyzed with the Center for Disease Control’s EPI software.

The result was a much more efficient collection and analysis of time-critical data. A mere 72 hours after Hurricane Charley slammed into the coast, the 10 response teams had interviewed 203 households spanning three counties, with the information from those interviews quickly examined. In a period of critical recovery after large-scale destruction, ArcPad software provided efficiency when and where it was most needed. The department cited a decrease in man-hours and improved data accuracy as its greatest accomplishments.

ESRI is also looking to improve and expand the ArcPad application’s uses. ArcPad 7, currently in beta testing and most likely shipping by the end of the year, contains several improvements over the model used in California and North Carolina. Using advanced editing tools, support for laser range finders, a sketch tool for freehand marking and support for new, faster data formats, the newer version promises to expand the scope of the solution and give field workers more options in what are often critical situations.

Pat Fugate, a disease investigation specialist from Buncombe County, N.C., put the software in perspective: “ArcPad was a quantum leap of improvement over the paper system we used [in 2003]. The handheld concept for completion of public health RNA and rapid transfer of data and mapping is pretty awesome.”•
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