Increasing the (Data) Flow
Students at the University of Texas at Austin have begun using rugged handhelds on a variety of projects, to cut the timeline from data collection to research publication.
Improve data collection processes for academic researchers in the field, increasing data management capabilities and streamlining the academic-publishing process, to give UT-Austin students an edge over other universities.
Use barcode-scanning on multiple projects with the rugged, field-proven Nautiz X5 handheld, creating simple forms to gather data while simultaneously creating a cyber-infrastructure of data peers can tap into.
Increased data-gathering efficiency, productivity and integrity – streamlining data collection, processing, management and analysis, and speeding time to publication.
You could call it the moment of truth. Reed Malin, a student researcher in the Jackson School of Geosciences’ Energy and Earth Resources Graduate Program at the University of Texas at Austin, was in the Northern Atacama desert in Chile, standing on the brink of a geothermal spring, staring at disaster.
Malin was there doing work as part of an innovative new UT-Austin program that utilized handheld computer technology to enhance productivity in university research projects. He was involved from the start with both the hardware and software aspects of the grant-funded program. And he had just dropped the hardware – a Nautiz X5 rugged handheld he helped choose from a range of competing products – into a hot spring.
It was only a split-second, but long enough for Malin to have a clear thought: “I’m going to get fired.”
He bent over and retrieved the Nautiz X5 from the 100-degree-plus (more than 38 °C) water, and… it worked just fine. “I was pretty impressed with that,” he recalls.
In 2010, Malin’s program advisor put together a proposal and submitted it to the Longhorn Innovation Fund for Technology (LIFT). The proposal was straightforward: implement handheld technology, in the form of in-the-field barcode scanning, so research projects across a range of sciences could catalog items and take inventories the way industry does, at the same time creating a cyber-infrastructure that researchers and educators could tap into to be more efficient in their work.
When the proposal was approved, the new program was christened the Data Flow Infrastructure Initiative (DFII). The basic purpose of DFII is to shorten the cycle from data collection to research publication, which will provide a competitive advantage for UT researchers.
While inventory systems such as UPC barcoding are widely used in the business world, they’re not in widespread use in the research community. Pairing barcoding with rugged mobile handheld devices would allow a diverse set of pilot projects to test the ability to increase efficiency, productivity and integrity in data flow – streamlining data collection, sample processing, database management and analysis, and speeding time to publication.
Malin was asked to do the preliminary research and decide on the technology to use. “I knew we’d need a Windows Mobile interface, because of the software we’d be using,” he says. “We wanted an established product, something that wasn’t new but had been used a bunch. It absolutely had to have a daylight-viewable screen. We wanted at least middle-range processing power, and a long battery life.”
As Malin examined all the products that fit within these parameters, the Nautiz X5 from Handheld US began to stand out from the crowd. The Nautiz X5 fit the bill on his requirements, with Windows Mobile, an Xscale 806 MHz processor, a 3.5-inch daylight-readable VGA touchscreen, numeric keypad and all-day battery life. But his final decision came down to two other factors: support and price.
“We really wanted to know we would have support for this product,” he says. “The folks at Handheld were always very responsive. And Handheld US gave us an academic discount. Even without the discount, the Nautiz X5 was competitive, particularly in the range of rugged handhelds, which tend to be super-high-end systems.”
“It had a proven platform, and had been selling for a while. And the Nautiz X5’s ruggedness really set it apart,” Malin adds, launching into the anecdote of his mishap in Chile.
With the technology cornerstone selected, the DFII program completed its toolkit. The Nautiz X5 collects in-situ data, which is entered into simple forms created for specific projects, and then uploaded for temporary storage to a database. Data collection and transfer interoperability are ensured by a DFII prototype system that uses a Pendragon Software module to interact directly with Microsoft Access. The user-friendly software lets non-programmers build and modify forms, which automatically create a relational database.
The DFII program began with work in four subject areas: Ecology, STEM Education, Geochemistry and Geoinformatics. Each area has unique needs and data to collect and process, but what they have in common is that they have something they need to catalog and inventory.
Malin’s geoinformatics thesis involves a case study of energy and resource management, and he was in Chile studying microorganisms that live in extreme environments. In this case, the bacteria live in geothermal springs in a desert at 14,000 feet (4200 meters) – thin air, thin atmosphere, dry desert, extreme temperatures – an analog for conditions under which early life may have existed on Earth, and a possible source for clues about other plants and how they survived.
And there he was, gathering data with his trusty Nautiz X5, when it lived up to its rugged billing.
“The performance of the Nautiz X5 has been good,” Malin summarizes. “The technology has worked just fine, and obviously the ruggedness is good. As far as the other groups, it’s worked well in the classroom; the screen and keyboard are really handy. It’s allowed our ecology group to barcode 3,000 samples, and our geochemists have barcoded samples and then tracked them individually and in groups through the analytical process. The Nautiz X5 has performed admirably.”