Digital pen puts GIS to work

Sometimes the simple innovations make the biggest splash. The paper clip is a good example.

For Angelo Marino, geographic information system manager for the city of Nashua, N.H., it was the Capturx pen.

According to Marino, his team has used ESRI software for about 10 years to track municipal assets, aid in city planning and respond to emergency incidents. But while the mapping software was great in the office, getting data from the field was problematic.

“It really wasn't GIS,” Marino said. “It was a situation where someone at the Emergency Operation Center or someone at an incident would make a flip chart or take a piece of paper and with different colored markers would mark up the map. But then all you had was a flip chart. You really can't do anything with it.”

So the flip chart would be brought back to the office and someone would be tasked with manually coding the data into the GIS software.

“That's not necessary anymore,” Marino said. That’s because his team has added the Capturx pen to its GIS toolset. With the digital pen, made by Adapx, a user in the field writes notes and makes annotations on hard-copy maps. The data is recorded and can be uploaded to a computer via USB docking. With Capturx for ArcGIS software, Marino’s team can add the handwritten annotations directly into the GIS software.

The pen contains an integrated digital camera and an image microprocessor. As a user writes with the pen it takes digital snapshots – at the rate of 75 shots per second – of the markings made on the hard-copy map. The data is stored in the pen’s on-board memory until it is docked to a computer. The user then has the opportunity to review all the collected data and selectively process it into the appropriate GIS file.

Marino said the city hasn’t yet deployed the pens to first responders, but they have used it in a recent training exercise that involved more than 20 agencies and over 100 people from local, county and state government. “I was placed at an incident with our emergency operations team working with police and fire and describing the incident through GIS and then e-mailing that, both PDFs and data, back to the Emergency Operations Center so the EOC had a complete picture of what was going on,” Marino said. Once the team at the EOC plugged the data into the GIS system, the resulting maps could be exported to PDF files that could be e-mailed to participants in the field.

“Time-saving is the biggest benefit,” Marino said. “I can hand the pen to a policeman who has never seen GIS and show him how to check off the features and place them on the map and he can do that in five minutes.”

And Marino sees a broader role for the tool than just with first responders. “In fact, I just finished downloading their Excel module to see if I can get started on working with some preprinted Excel forms,” Marino said. “It doesn't have to stop with emergency incidents and safety agencies. I see applications throughout municipal government where this thing can be used and used effectively.”

Currently, software is available from Adapx that integrates the pen with ESRI ArcGIS, AutoDesk Design Review, Microsoft Office OneNote and Microsoft Excel. The only supported operating system is Microsoft Windows (XP, Service Pack 3, or later version, and Vista, 32-bit version only.) — Patrick Marshall

About the Author

Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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