CDC tries hand at paperless field data collection

CDC tries hand at paperless field data collection

Used during Hurricane Georges, handhelds alleviate data-entry tasks for agents conducting surveys

By Chris Driscoll

GCN Staff

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta are testing handheld PCs for field data collection.''

CDC's International Emergency and Refugee Help Branch first used handhelds in the Dominican Republic during Hurricane Georges last year. The handhelds were convenient for collecting data while walking from house to house or shelter to shelter.''

CDC flies workers into areas that have experienced natural or manmade disasters to make a rapid assessment of health conditions and needs. The field agents ordinarily conduct surveys on paper questionnaires, then type the data into notebook PCs later. CDC processes all the data and advises other federal agencies about supplies required by refugees and victims.

The centers are considering issuing its field researchers either PalmPilots from Palm Computing, a subsidiary of 3Com Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif., or handheld PCs that run Microsoft Windows CE.

Skipping steps

Handhelds will help CDC workers make faster assessments by skipping a couple of steps they now have to complete, said Brent Burkholder, chief of International Emergency and Refugee Help.

'We would not have to have a paper questionnaire, which needs photocopy capability,' Burkholder said. 'When we are working in the middle of Rwanda or Kosovo, [photocopies] are difficult to obtain.'''

The CDC workers also could skip the next step, data entry, which is time-consuming and requires extra staff as well as electricity that might be in limited supply or unavailable, Burkholder said.

Field workers in Kosovo did not use the PalmPilot, however, because of earlier problems uploading data on the handhelds to the notebooks the agency uses for processing. Burkholder said the problem is incompatibility between the two platforms' software, but he expects his team of seven to start using Palm III units soon. CDC has already bought 30 Palm IIIs.

Burkholder's team gathers epidemiological, water and sanitation data for the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. He said CDC also is testing handheld Global Positioning System devices for use by field researchers.

John Inkley, federal sales manager for Palm Computing, said Palm units also are undergoing an Air Force proof-of-concept test for e-mail coordination of large-scale weapons systems trials.

The 6-ounce Palm measures 4.7 inches by 3.2 inches by 0.7 inches. The original version had 2M of RAM. The $249 Palm IIIx has 4M of RAM, enough to hold about 12,000 addresses or 400 e-mail messages, Inkley said. The $699 Palm VII uses a wireless link to connect to the Internet and will soon be available on the General Services Administration Information Technology Schedule, he said.

Hewlett-Packard Co. has cut the price of its Jornada 420 running Windows CE to $449. Unlike the Palm products, the Jornada has a color text display. It weighs 8.81 ounces and measures 5.1 inches by 3.2 inches by 0.9 inches.''

Contact Palm Computing at 703-848-7775 and HP at 650-566-1200.

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