Field Based Data Capture Systems


The old adage ‘crap in crap out’ in many ways defines the key requirements of optimised Field Based Data Capture Systems. Despite this, following the upgrade of a legacy ‘offline’ system to a connected or digital process, the effectiveness of the system is often blamed on the technological capability and/or the ability of the end user to use the technology process successfully. Rather than looking to connected data capture solutions as the fix all to this process it may be the answer lies in history. 

As early as the 1900’s the choice between automation, or manual input where two very clear alternatives in collecting and collating structured and unstructured data from Field Based Data Capture Systems.

The image above (courtesy of the Florida Historic Archives), show a Field Based Data Capture System from the 1940’s. I don’t know a lot about the 1940’s but i guess the field based data collection agent ticked boxed with a weird stylus like device (lets call it a ‘pencil’). Those cards where then used to update a mainframe computer database back in an office.


Data Capture Methods

The row of images above shows a progression of the automated data capture process.

First we have a 1920’s US census field agent out collecting/validating passive data with a pen and paper. Again, I have no direct insight into this process. I assume what happened from here is the data collection agent returned to their base office. Next all the various paper based responses were collated from the different zones that had agents collecting data.,Finally the paper was collated and sent in a packet to somewhere central for aggregation. At that point the data may have been entered into a mainframe database using the punch card technic (such as the middle image).

The last image is of Motorola Vice President John F. Mitchell showing you what you can do with  the DynaTAC portable radio telephone in New York City in 1973 (image courtesy of the IB Times).

The main thing to note is that this is one of those unusual ‘what’s going on there’ images from recent history :). The purpose of the shot is to demonstrate the profound effect the wireless revolution has had on the other pictured historic methods of data capture/input. Getting data (however it is captured) from the field to the backend database via a connected network/device was the game changer in fully automating remote or field based data capture workflow.

So what can we conclude?

As a user collected static data method the 1940’s tablet solution has been replaced with an connected tablet (that bypasses the manually handling of the cards), and the pen and paper process has been enhanced by the ability of conventional paper to capture data input using a wet ink pen. While the method for getting the data back to base is now instant, does this mean that one method is better or should be used exclusively, over the other?

Clearly many of the original historic process considerations are still valid today. What method of capturing data is preferred by the data creator? The Welsh Ambulance Service recently deployed a great solution with Anoto that speaks to this exact issue. When faced with the need to digitise a offline data capture method, should the answer be glass, or paper? Or both? One solution may not be the best solution.

And more often than not, when a tablet based data capture method is failing (for whatever reason) the likely step down is not to an hybrid technology system but direct to the legacy system: pen and paper. Wouldn’t it be easier to use this as the starting point rather than the end?

It seems that today, as in 1940 pen and paper seem to be a acceptable fallback that works everywhere.



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