Sunday, August 14, 2011

Digital data can replace dog-eared notebooks in forestry

There are big steps, but often to get to the big steps, there need to be a lot of little steps.

These don't get much attention, but they're important.

A group of forest researchers in Hawai`i recently challenged the old paradigm of marching into the woods to measure forest productivity with little more than a dog-eared notebook, a pencil, and some measuring tools.

Their goal: to see whether the digital age could be brought to forestry fieldwork.

Their conclusion, yes, it can, and it can save significant amounts of time, but you need to take precautions against downpours, dropped equipment, system crashes and dead batteries.

The researchers are Faith Inman-Narahari and Lawren Sack of the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department at University of California Los Angeles ,Christian Giardina and Susan Cordell of the Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry of the USDA Forest Service in Hilo, and Rebecca Ostertag of the Department of Biology at the University of Hawai`i at Hilo. The published their findings in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution, under the title “Digital data collection in forest dynamics plots.”

With the caveats that you use tough field computers, that you pay attention to battery life issues, and back up your data on drives that don't die with battery failure, they said going digital makes sense.

“Use of digital methods resulted in an average 11-8% reduction in total effort due to reduced secondary data entry time,” they wrote.

That means you save all the time transferring data from those dog-eared notebooks to your computer, since the information is already in digital form.

This all may seem obvious, but most researchers continue to use paper notebooks, the authors say, because of those issues of data loss.

“Electronic data collection holds great promise for enhancing ecological research capacity, yet researchers may be reluctant to adopt digital methods for many reasons including concerns of losing large amounts of data, the money and time needed to buy and implement a new system, the weather-resistance of electronic devices, and the lack of familiarity with digital options,” they wrote.

In fact, the advent of waterproof, shock-resistant computers with all-day batteries should be able to resolve many of those issues, and the time savings may outweigh the financial cost off the equipment.

© Jan TenBruggencate