Smartphone Application Simplifies Field Data Collection and Analysis

By Megan Holland

A USACE Emergency Operations worker uses the MICA application to capture levee data. (Photo courtesy of USACE.)

Researchers at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) in Vicksburg, MS, have created a faster, more efficient way to collect and manage field data, using one of the most common technologies in today’s market: smartphones. With the ERDC-developed Mobile Information Collection Application (MICA) software, data can be captured digitally, saving hours of writing forms and inputting data into spreadsheets.

Thanks to the progress of technology, today’s phones do much more than make calls. Most come equipped with cameras, GPS, compasses, wireless capability, and computer processing. ERDC researchers began investigating the use of smartphones as data collection devices in 2009, in hopes of harnessing the all-in-one capability for efficient and cost-effective data collection. The Corps of Engineers was using the technology as an Operation Blue Roof Field Management System following natural disasters when the need for the MICA format arose.

“In late May, we received a call from a fellow ERDC employee who observed teams reporting field images and notes that were 24-36 hours old in daily briefings while assigned to Mississippi River flood duty with the Corps’ Memphis District. He asked us if there was a better way,” said Robert Walker, Computer Scientist for ERDC’s Information Technology Lab. “Within 48 hours, we had a version of MICA ready to go for flood fighting.”

Fifty Android phones installed with ERDC’s MICA software were deployed to seven flood-affected cities, resulting in more than 12,000 pictures, videos, and notes that were transmitted from the field directly to command centers along with the latitude and longitude for each piece of information, allowing the critical data to be reviewed immediately. The historic flood data covered everything from sand boils to homeowners digging next to levees, and is now safely stored on ERDC’s servers to be reviewed in the future if needed.

The technology eliminates the need for field personnel to return to computers during or at the end of a long day to type and organize field notes, a previously necessary precursor to the decision-making process. It also eliminates the need to carry a backpack full of equipment—everything needed for collection can be found on the phone.

“If someone in the field sees something they need to report back, they pull out their phone, open the MICA software, and begin collecting data,” said Walker. “Once the data has been captured, they hit the sync button and it is sent instantly. MICA provides a new capability that field personnel have never had before.”

Though many initially were wary of a new technology in the midst of the crisis, Walker said, they welcomed it after demonstrations of what the technology can do.

COL Robert J. Ruch, Commander of the Corps’ Omaha District, called MICA a great application.

“It helps us know what’s been done on the ground. It helps us, when we see a boil or something similar, to get people and resources to the right place,” said Ruch. “It’s a great application and great work by the folks at ERDC.”

Looking ahead, ERDC researchers plan to expand MICA’s use beyond flood fighting. Because the software can be customized with a variety of categories, including recreational area inspection, slope failure, and debris cleanup (an area that is being tested in Joplin, MO), the possibilities are endless. ERDC is also working on a suite of complimentary smartphone applications for use with iPhones, iPads and Android tablets.

“We took an ERDC technology and joined the fight, helping commanders make decisions to keep citizens safe, and we’ve proven to emergency operations teams around the country that MICA would be a great asset to their mission,” Walker said. “We hope now to make this product available worldwide to our districts and to our Soldiers.”

For more information on USACE, visit http://www.usace.army.mil/Pages/default.aspx, or for more information on ERDC, visit http://www.erdc.usace.army.mil/.


 

  • MEGAN HOLLAND is a Contract Writer for the Public Affairs Office at the Engineer Research and Development Center. She has a B.A. in English from Mississippi College and is pursuing a M.A. in marketing from Mississippi State University.

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