How to convince someone to move from paper-based forms to electronic surveys

I spent March of 2018 working closely with a bridge engineer. For years, they had been using four paper questionnaires to capture inventory and inspection data of structures such as bridges, culverts, gantries etc. They would arrive at a structure, select the appropriate form, measure and write everything down, take a load of photos, draw a sketch or two and move on to the next one.

When they got back to the office, they would get a few students to manually input the captured data into an electronic form, which would store it in a database on their local machine. The students would also need to manually link photos to the correct structure. As with most projects, time would always run out, so the engineers would also need to help out with this electronic transfer process.

Once the screaming in my head subsided, I asked him, “Why? Why is it being done this way? It’s 2018. The process you are describing should have been phasing out at least 5 years ago already.” He didn’t really have a straight answer for me, beyond “this is the way it’s always been done”.

Over the next few weeks, I showed him that there is a better way. I used the first week to convert the largest of the four forms using Survey123. The form was fairly complex – with no access to a table layout or even a grid theme, I had to make a number of design decisions which wouldn’t impact the user experience too much while still retaining (and even enhancing) the functionality available in the paper form.

After my initial stab at it, we spent 2 more weeks going back and forth, fine-tuning choice lists, removing unnecessary questions, changing section groups, enforcing relevant fields, choosing repeats and optimising calculations. We ended up with an xls of 250 rows of questions and 35 choice lists. I was fortunate to have access to one of the databases they’d used on a previous project, so I was able to extract the choices from the lookup tables using SQL and Python.

I spent the last week of March replicating the other three forms. They were similar enough that I could copy and paste much of what I had implemented on the first form, but different enough that I couldn’t keep everything in one form. Once that was completed, I published all the surveys and gave it to him to thoroughly test (I believe my exact words were “Try to break it”).

By the first week of April, I had fixed most of the bugs and we were ready to train the students on it in the field. I set up a web app allowing him to view the surveys as they were submitted. He could immediately send a message to the students in the WhatsApp group I set up on their tablets if they were measuring components incorrectly, or not describing items properly. He was fully converted.

In my next post, I’ll detail how I took everything down and rebuilt it from its ashes by adding Workforce for ArcGIS and Operations Dashboard to create a more efficient system.

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The grid theme is finally available in Survey123

I got a lovely surprise when I opened my emails on Friday – ESRI has finally gotten around to implementing a beta version of the grid theme in Survey123.

I know I’ve been quiet on the blog for a while, but that’s because I’ve been keeping my rants about GIS offline (mostly). In particular, my utter frustration at not being able to replicate a very critical paper-based form digitally because of the lack of a grid theme.

I even went as far as chucking Survey123 completely, setting up ODK Collect from scratch and trying out the grid theme there. I was not happy with the results at all, so I resigned myself to a compromise: replicating the forms in Excel and extracting the data automatically from the spreadsheets as the team uploads them to OneDrive in the field. Terrible, I know, but still better than paper.

Since ESRI is making this tentatively worded claim in the beta forum:

It’s now possible to design a digital smart form that closely resembles its paper form predecessor!

I will be putting it to the test today. It’s still not the holy grail though, which would be a proper table theme, but it at least takes us a step closer.

Survey123 support added to the ArcGIS API for Python

I don’t get excited for much these days, which is why I found my reaction to point 3 of the release notes for the 1.5.1 update so odd:

Maybe it’s because I’ve spent the last 8 months in a constant state of frustration, integrating and automating processes using Survey123, Workforce and AGOL through the API. It could be relief that I’m feeling as well. Perhaps there is light at the end of this tunnel.