December 14, 2008 By Andy Opsahl
The thought of government IT departments promoting a new pen-and-paper data collection technology sounds like a joke, doesn't it? But that's what several local governments are doing. With a special pen, users mark up a paper map and those markings appear on a digital version of the same map. Each marking becomes a GIS layer in the digital version. Local governments are embracing this technology because many responders still favor using pens and paper in the field instead of laptops and tablets.
Conventional wisdom suggests fieldworkers must join the paperless world. However, some say workers whose core competencies involve field navigation, logistics and physical strength need not be expected to maintain extensive technology skills. The Adapx digital pen, called Penx, offers GIS technicians a way to do their jobs without requiring technology training for fieldworkers.
The digital pen feels and writes like an ordinary ballpoint pen, but it contains a miniature digital camera and image microprocessor. The paper map, which any office printer can produce, is covered in tiny printed dots. The digital pen records the user's pen strokes and where the strokes appear on the map by reading the dots the pen touches. The paper version features a palette of GIS layers that a fieldworker might want to draw on a map, like roadblocks, temporary parking and pedestrian areas. The palette has a symbol representing each layer. If the user wants to draw a roadblock, for example, he or she taps the "roadblock" symbol with the pen and then begins drawing.
Satisfying technology-resistant fieldworkers is a commonality that all governments deploying the digital pen seem to share. Ann Boyd, GIS analyst for Bellevue, Wash., recently purchased a digital pen, and she rejects the notion that fieldworkers should be forced to be technically literate and use tablets or laptops. She contends that computers, to a certain extent, will meet users' level of expertise as time progresses.
"Computing has always tried to become more like natural language, natural modes of interaction," Boyd said. "That's why the mouse developed. Typing was not a natural way to interact with computers, so the mouse developed because people want to point and use their hands. It's why you're seeing a lot more touchscreens."
Boyd is considering giving firefighters the digital pen for marking fire hydrants in residential neighborhoods during new construction. The streets in those areas usually aren't in Bellevue's street database yet, but firefighters need data on them in case a construction site calls for assistance. Firefighters already collect that information using paper maps, so using the digital pen would feel natural.
"It just seems like an easier way to translate their data into a digital mode than a whole additional interface of a laptop, an application and a mouse-driven setup. The pen is just such a natural way for these folks to work, meaning they'll be more receptive to it," Boyd said.
Her only reservation about the pen is its size.
"Because it's so small and easy to carry around, it's also easier to lose or drop in a puddle," Boyd said.
Governments deploying digital pens point out the advantage they provide for emergency operations requiring responders from out of town. Using the digital pen, a government wouldn't waste time training newcomers on mobile computing devices and applications that are different than what guest responders use at home.
"There is very little learning curve to it. It's a pen and a piece of paper," said Mike Hoose, captain of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department in California, which recently began using digital pens.
He contends that paper is better backup for a fieldworker's map changes than a tablet or