Dirt to Desktop: Digital Tools in the Field

Field research data digitally captured, organised and analysed saving time and money
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Field research data around the globe, from the Blue Mountains in New South Wales to remote villages in Cameroon, is being digitally captured, organised and analysed thanks to the Field Acquired Information Management Systems (FAIMS) Mobile platform.

Launched in 2012, FAIMS Mobile is a world-class, open-source platform for producing custom electronic notebooks for data collection in diverse field situations. FAIMS was originally funded by Nectar, one of the three NCRIS facilities that became ARDC, and has seen continuous improvements for 10 years.

Upgrading from Paper to Mobile

There are a myriad of ways that manual data collection in the field, particularly in remote locations, can go wrong and cause inconsistencies, manual errors and more—leading to hours of additional work ‘cleaning’ the data. FAIMS was developed to address these challenges and simplify field work by adding additional features such as mobile mapping, multimedia management, and the automatic application of identifiers.

When creating the platform, the team quickly understood that every research team wanted something different, so the app was created to be completely customisable for a wide range of research and data collection requirements.

Since its launch, FAIMS Mobile has been used:

  • for 64 field data capture workflows
  • in over 40 projects
  • by hundreds of researchers who logged thousands of hours on the platform.

FAIMS has been taken up around the globe, including in Australia, Bulgaria, Cameroon, China, Israel, Malawi, Peru and Turkey and by researchers at Yale, Harvard, Brown, Aarhus, La Trobe, Macquarie, UNSW, New England and Queensland universities. It has been deployed in research fields including geosciences, ecology, archaeology, oral history, ethnography, linguistics and citizen science applications.

Since its initial development in 2012, FAIMS has received funding from Nectar, the Australian Research Council, the NSW Government, several Australian universities and small firms, and the ARDC.

2 CSIRO staff taking geochemical samples and documenting them in the FAIMS mobile app during a GSSA/CSIRO sampling campaign in the Nullarbor Desert with helicopter in the background
CSIRO staff taking geochemical samples and documenting them in the FAIMS mobile app during a GSSA/CSIRO sampling campaign in the Nullarbor Desert. FAIMS mobile platform is supported by the Australian Research Data Commons. Photo taken by Carmen Krapf, copyright CSIRO 2017

Searching for Hidden Mineral Deposits with FAIMS

In Australia, FAIMS is speeding up the mineral resources industry’s hunt for traces of high-value mineral deposits through halving the time required for geochemical sampling.

“80 per cent of Australia is not well explored for mineral resources,” said Dr Jens Klump, Team Leader Geoscience Analytics at CSIRO. “Everything that’s easy to find has been found.”

There could be large high-value mineral deposits waiting to be discovered deeper underground.

However, the chance of finding economic mineral deposits is very small, explained Jens: “Finding them is even more difficult than finding a needle in a haystack.”

As part of the CSIRO Mineral Resources discovery program, Jens and his colleagues work with independent contractors, state geological surveys and the minerals resources industry to sample hundreds of thousands of boreholes and soils, looking for anomalies in the geochemistry that may point to economic deposits of high-value mineral resources that warrant further investigation.

With so much unknown about Australia’s wealth of mineral resources, FAIMS is reducing the time and money spent on water, vegetation and soil sampling, speeding up the quest to find valuable mineral deposits.

“FAIMS has halved the time needed for sampling,” said Jens.

And when sampling involves travelling to hundreds of sampling locations across the Nullarbor Plain in a helicopter, halving the time spent sampling is a huge cost saving.

Saving Time and Money

FAIMS allows data collection offline, automatically synchronising data collected by multiple teams in the field when they can connect to a network, eliminating double entry, and automating exports, which saves time and reduces errors.

“In the past you had to transcribe handwritten notes into a spreadsheet, then make the association between the image file and location—it was time consuming and manual,” said Dr Jens Klump, Team Leader Geoscience Analytics at CSIRO.

FAIMS has completely changed the way Jens and his colleagues collect samples, ditching the paper for the app and providing richer data sets.

“Another step that saves a lot of time is having the app on the mobile device,” he said.

“It helps capture a lot of contextual information—who I am, where I am, what project I am working on, the time, and other data points—which reduces the data entry to very few elements.

“In one campaign, we pre-printed sample labels with a QR code that we could then scan in to make the tie between the sample in the paper bag and the electronic record. This halved the time needed for sampling.”

FAIMS 3.0—Flexible, Cross-Platform and Self-Serve

Recognising the potential for commercialisation and translation of FAIMS, the ARDC co-invested in the FAIMS 3.0 project, which is re-building FAIMS Mobile to be cross platform (Android, IOS and desktop) and to allow users to customise and rapidly deploy modules through a graphic user interface. An open-source FAIMS library will also enable researchers to reuse and adapt applications developed by others.

While FAIMS 3.0 will always have a no-cost pathway for research, there will also be commercial opportunities in the future. The project team participated in the CSIRO ON Prime pre-accelerator program, along with a commercialisation program at Macquarie University, which influenced the redesign of the platform focusing on use patterns determined through over 70 interviews with potential users. Archaeology, geoscience and environmental sciences companies, along with the university sector, have already shown interest in the commercial version of FAIMS 3.0.

FAIMS 3.0 beta will be launched for testing in 2022, with the final release in 2023. It is being developed with ARDC co-investment, in collaboration with Macquarie University, AARNet, CSIRO, University of New South Wales, La Trobe University, Aarhus University and 12 other local and international institutions.