Smart phone Apps for Environmental Data Collection

Environmental Efficiency has recently implemented a LEAN project to improve the efficiency of recording environmental monitoring data, such as noise monitoring, whilst in the field. Most consultancies and regulators, including us in the past, would use notebooks or paper forms to record (or supplement) the monitoring data.

The old approach has a number of inefficiencies. To address these inefficiencies and reduce the time from being on-site to issue of reports, Environmental Efficiency has written a suite of apps for the iPhone. Roll out of the new system was in February 2015 and early results show a significance reduction in time on-site and in time from being on-site to issue of reports. Additional benefits are annotated photos, where appropriate, GPS locations of monitoring points and reduction in errors

Take an example of monitoring for environmental noise at an IPPC licensed site. The wind speed and direction need to be noted, a photograph of the location needs to be taken and the actual noise results written down. Even if the consultant relies on the built-in memory of the sound level meter (SLM), the sources of off-site and on-site noise will still need to be written down in a notebook and later matched to the actual recording on the SLM. The end result is that the data is spread over a number of media and each of these will need referencing to write the report. This means that the report cannot be started until the consultant is back in the office. Even if someone else is going to write the report, they will have to wait until the consultant is available and has all the data.

Other problems with the notebook approach included a lack a means to validate the data on site which sometimes results in uncertainty when back in the office. In addition, on some sites monitoring locations can be poorly labelled, overgrown with weeds or the labels vandalised; this can result in confusion as to which point has been monitored.

The Environmental Efficiency LEAN project reviewed all our existing sampling collection forms and undertook a gap analysis against EPA and the requirements of other regulators. This resulted in a series of revised forms. An app, specifically customised for each revised form, was then designed for use with the iPhone. The app had the ability to prompt for all the information required on the paper form and also enabled photos and GPS co-ordinates to be included. Error checking was built in to warn against non-sensible input. Once the form is completed, the user merely hits ‘submit’ and after anautomatic check is made to ensure that all mandatory fields are entered, the form is uploaded to the cloud.

To write the report, just one file is now accessed, this has all the data, comments, annotated photos and GPS co-ordinates, in other words, all the information in one place. For a recent bund visual inspection carried out in Donegal, the form was uploaded at site on completion and another consultant started writing the report in Dublin whilst the surveyor was travelling back. The report was issued the following day.

The old paper based approach also meant that paper Method Statements and SOPs had to be brought to site. Consulting these in the wind and rain can be a problem. The customised apps written by Environmental Efficiency include PDFs of the Method Statement, SOPs, site location maps etc. The ability to annotate the photos, diagrams and maps is an added bonus.

A further bonus is that, for example, the client’s bund schedule can be upload to the phone prior to starting the job and each bund being inspected can be selected from a list. This saves having to tick off each bund on a paper list and ensures consistency in bund naming.

The benefits for the client are numerous

  • Reports issued quicker
  • Reports contain more information
  • All required information has been collected
  • Results are traceable to a GPS location
  • Evidence that the monitoring location has been visited
  • Data from the app can be shared with the client
  • Less time on site and writing reports resulting in more competitive prices