Pen computers simplify projects
The information revolution’s motto is “those who manage data best, win!” Certainly this applies to municipal projects where efficient data collection and management lead to a more successful end product, making the public the big winner.
Virtually all engineering, construction, architecture and planning projects include data collection and management. Whether this includes documenting existing conditions, tracking materials or ensuring compliance with design specifications and schedules, an extensive amount of information is usually involved.
New digital collection equipment makes the process easier. Portable computers are available that free users from their desks with no sacrifice of high-end features. Advances in operating systems and development platforms have led to new software that makes the most of these systems.
The most exciting developments are in pen computers – hand-held devices that use a stylus, rather than a keyboard, to enter data. Data may be numeric, character or ink – freehand sketches or notes. The stylus acts as a pointing device as well, allowing the user to navigate the software.
Special electronic forms are used instead of a pen and pad to record data. Critical information is written directly onto the computer screen, and lettering is changed into text through handwriting recognition. The software then converts the information into a computer-readable format and stores it as a data record.
Data from pen computers is usually downloaded to an office system, floppy disk, network interface card or docking station. Transfer time from the field is greatly reduced, and because there are no intermediate steps, such as retyping data, errors during transfer are practically nonexistent.
To speed entry, pen computing forms rely on a checkbox/list field approach, presenting options on the screen for the user’s selection. Text fields are relatively small, to minimize the amount of handwriting recognition required.
Pen computers have been used successfully on a number of projects. For example, to expedite field collection work on a bridge inspection project, the New York City Department of Transportation used pen computers. The job involved inspecting and providing digital and traditional photographic documentation of the underside and top of the deck, abutments and piers on a 15-span, six-lane bridge.
Pen computer inspection forms were developed, including such information as bridge identification number, features carried and crossed, photo number, location and description of inspection. Automating the collection process saved time and minimized lane closures, an important consideration on the heavily-used roadway.
On the Williamsburg Bridge in Manhattan, a pen-based sign inventory system is being used to ensure that all construction signs comply with maintenance and protection of traffic plans. A database showing the correct color, sign size and layout, letter size and type and sign mount can be called up on field computers and compared to signs in the field. Graphics are linked to a database so that information about particular signs can be retrieved without resorting to plans.
There are other potential applications, including pavement management systems that eliminate the need to redraw sketches of pavement conditions. With intelligent sketching, a prompt tells the operator the dimensions of the items drawn, and the sketch information can be used as CADD files for creation of design documents.
Water, sewer and drainage system data can also be collected and managed more easily, and inventories of utility poles, catch basins, manholes, traffic lights and hydrants can be simplified.