With the aid of a smart phone and the EpiCollect application, field research has just become easier, regardless of whether it is conducting animal counts, biodiversity surveys, or population and health studies.
Funded by the Wellcome Trust, EpiCollect's free software captures data through text input forms that can have photos or videos attached. The software then sends a copy of this data to a central web server for further processing.
Consequently, one can monitor results in real-time, unlike traditional surveys which require data to be collected from various sources, organized and checked, taking up valuable time and delaying results.
EpiCollect consists of two parts: a mobile app for collecting data and a web app, enabling users to set up a project, design forms and visualize data. The project's lead researcher, David Aanensen of Imperial College London, explained: "One of the Greek meanings of 'epi' is 'upon' and we wanted to reflect the generality of our approach; getting the data is only the first hurdle. What one does with the data 'upon collection' is where things get interesting."
Anyone involved in a project can access EpiCollect's database online or from their phone. Meanwhile, whoever creates the project has sole control, providing security from unwanted interlopers.
This open-source software was developed using Google's suite of products, so it runs on phones with Google's Android operating system; it is also available on the iPhone. It can be used to create questionnaires or spreadsheets. Users can even use Google chat to instantly parley with 'citizen scientists' or researchers in the field.
All project data is hosted on Google's cloud service, AppEngine, though users can set up their own web servers. Because smart phones automatically log the location through the Global Positioning System, everything can be plotted on Google maps.
Even when a field researcher is out of range of a mobile network, data and GPS coordinates can still be collected and stored on the smartphone - when the user is back online, the information can be synchronized.
However, a criticism about the software is cross-platform availability. "We currently provide EpiCollect for Android and iPhones but are working on other versions," said Aanensen.
So far, over 500 projects have used EpiCollect. These range from cataloguing archaeological sites, animal and plant distribution monitoring and mapping locations of street graffiti. David says: "It's easy to set up and use; anyone can become part of a bigger and more interesting project."
Jan Hattendorf of the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute in Basel, Switzerland, said this tool could reduce the gap between data entry and data collection in the the monitoring of health among populations, citing his own experience in collecting, collating and organizing data in a drinking water survey of 600 Bolivian children (BoliviaWET).
Another benefit is real-time consistency checks of data. Hattendorf said re-identification of children under different field conditions is difficult: children lose their ID cards or their names could change in some cultural settings. "Imagine a study where indicators for chronic malnutrition - such as weight, age and height - are collected every three months. A comparison with previous data (for instance when a child is 'shrinking') could easily identify that either they measured the wrong child or the measurement is not correct," said Hattendorf. Ideally, he would like the user interface to be easy-to-use as field researchers often must train local people.
User feedback plays an important role in helping improve the tool's capabilities. Moreover, should Epicollect have more enhanced graphical animations or a simplified user interface? Its developers have to ensure that any answers to this question make the tool a more valuable instrument to researchers or 'citizen scientists' in the field.