Wiring the Field
Digital Government grants have united researchers at Iowa State University University of California at Santa Barbara with government IT experts in the Census Bureau, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Department of Agriculture and U.S. Geological Survey under the label "Project Battuta."
For their model, they have adopted the image of a camel-riding 14th century geographer - the intrepid Ibn Battuta, who traveled 25,000 miles over 22 years to explore Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
But in their work, they are remodeling census takers, environmental scientists and other federal field data collectors into fully (and quite literally) wired individuals equipped to build useful, more intricate databases live on the spot.
Project Battuta is developing the foundation for designing handheld and wearable hardware and multi-adaptible software infrastructures that tie together maps, photographs, geospatial datasets and silicon into unified data-gathering systems.
Ultimately, the design priniciples and prototype systems developed in Project Battuta could help federal field workers navigate straight to remote, unmarked places, allow them to record all their data on the fly and upload it immediately and securely into a master database that can then be parsed, redistributed and reused dynamically by other investigators.
"We're entirely enthusiastic about this as a way to get involved in interesting research projects that have practical applications for the way the government and citizens operate," says Sarah Nusser, the PI and statistician leading Iowa State's team. "The collaborations are really very enjoyable." Project Battuta's researchers are exploring four fields:
From the government's point of view, the project's benefits could reach far beyond a smoother field experience for field workers, to a savings of time, labor and money and a higher degree of accuracy, says Cathryn Dippo, associate commissioner for survey methods research at the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"The process of keeping that up to date will be easier - it will be digitized, it will be less tied to paper," says Dippo, who has worked on Digital Government projects since the program's infancy.
"There's a need to make sure we don't go to the same sample area numerous times, and having all that digitized in a way that's tied to geography will allow us to meet our sampling needs more efficiently and allow us to change what we're doing to meet programmatic needs," says Dippo.
One of the chief advances so far for researchers has been expanding the set of possible actions for users relative to previous system designs, says Nusser. "Survey organizations have taken a rigid client/server approach to the way they build data collection systems, and in fact, we have here at Iowa State, as well," she says.
"In exploring how to build an adaptable system that responds to what's out in the field, we've basically redesigned the way in which you would build a system for data collection," Nusser explains. "We've gone from interactions determined a priori by the infrastructure design to automatically generated field wrappers that can provide information on the field user, task, and computing environment to guide query processing, she says.
The researchers are studying how to design field wrappers so that they apply to a broad array of mobile data-collection instruments, from wireless PDAs or cell phones to handheld computers or graphics-enabled tablets, she said.
"What we started off with was we wanted people to get not only the data prescribed (by their survey) but to get other kinds of innformation that they may need because of an unexpected information. It's completely rethinkng how you can build and design the system."
Another innovation Battuta researchers are pursuing is to apply cognitive psychology principles used in designing field questionnaires to the mapping systems that field researchers use on their handheld devices to find their way from one data collection point to the next.
One such system involves directing a field worker to the next data collection point by feeding the handheld computer a multi-faceted location file that could contain a map, GPS info, field photos, satellite photos and written directions, depending on the user's preferences, Nusser says.
And the research into wearable computers at UCSB (see video) is exploring ways to meld the data environment with the field environment via eyeglass-mounted displays, CPUs and transmitter/receivers built into clothing, handheld input devices and other innovations that lighten investigators' hardware load and put them more directly in touch with the world they survey.
"This is a very exciting project," says Dippo. "It's one where you can put your hands around something, you can see where it can really make a difference."