Digital Pen Converts Paper Marks to Digital Data

First responders and field staff use digital pen to transfer written notes to GIS maps.

by / December 14, 2008 0
Digital Pen Converts Paper Marks to Digital Data Illustration by Tom McKeith

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.


How It Works

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.


Fighting Cultural Tides

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.


Paper Streamlines IT

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

laptop. What if the tablet or laptop breaks in the field?

"Let's say the camera [on the pen] fails. You still have your changes on a piece of paper. That's different from a tablet or laptop," Hoose said. "With pen and paper, you can still get back to the unit and manually digitize your changes if you have to. If that happens with a tablet PC, you're stuck and all your plans are screwed. That's what happens when people live and die by technology."

The digital pen works even if the user tears up the map or crumples it into ball.


Time Commodity

Traditionally technicians manually digitize markings from paper maps into GIS layers, which takes hours. GIS technicians in Nashua, N.H., eliminated that delay by working around their fieldworkers' preference for pens and paper. After using the digital pen in the field, city employees hand it to GIS technicians who instantly produce GIS layers from it, said Angelo Marino, chief assessor for Nashua.

The instruction for using the digital pen takes 10 minutes, Marino said.

Marino recently purchased 15 digital pens for roughly $15,000 and plans to use them for an upcoming terrorism drill in conjunction with Nashua's emergency operations center (EOC). Marino got an idea at the EOC's last terrorism drill as he watched the police captain mark up a 2-foot by 3-foot flipchart map, giving instructions to a room packed with responders.

"I can let him draw on that map, and then when I dock the pen, it's going to show up on the screen in front of the EOC, projected to be 5 feet by 6 feet, and everybody in the room is going to be able to see it," Marino explained. "I can create a PDF out of it, and if I need to send it to the State Police or the FBI, I can do that immediately without having to worry about how to send that flipchart paper map that he's marked up with a highlighter."

Marino brought the digital pen to the attention of the director of the Nashua Parks and Recreation Department for planning the agency's Earth Day garbage pickup activity.

"We said, 'OK, just take the pen and draw on the map where your Dumpster is going to be and where you want to have your flagmen and access for the trucks.' In five minutes, he had a plan for which we printed maps that he handed to all of his individuals who were going to be in the field that day," Marino said.

Marino is currently using a digital pen to plan for Nashua's next fireworks display.

"We have symbols for where the police are going to be stationed, where the streets are going to be closed, where the fire truck will be, where the emergency aid station is and the detour routes for after the fireworks," Marino detailed. "It shows where police will hold out cars to turn left and not turn right, and where they'll forbid parking during and after."

Marino is eager to try a new feature of the Adapx digital pen that lets users write paper notes and later import them to Microsoft Office OneNote by docking the pen. The digital version of the map would then feature tags linking to the field notes written about each GIS layer.

"It allows you to deploy the information in a richer sense -- not just locations, but descriptions of the actual happenings that are going on in the map," he said.



Andy Opsahl

Andy Opsahl is a former writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.