Fulcrum For Consulting Engineers

19 February 2014 by Bryan McBride

Before joining the Spatial Networks team, I spent the last six and a half years working as a GIS Analyst/Developer for a full service engineering firm on projects spanning the globe. One of the cool things about working in the Technology Solutions group for a multidisciplinary engineering firm is that you get to be involved in a wide variety of projects across many different disciplines. Engineers are involved in everything, from transportation projects to environmental impact assessments, utility network design to water and wastewater system modeling. In my experience, this level of variety in a GIS job is rare.

Throughout my career, I’ve worked as a Tax Map Technician, GIS Specialist/Analyst, and Consultant for municipal governments, private consulting firms, and academic institutions. I’ve come to realize that the nature of most GIS positions is inherently repetitive. You maintain the geodata or maps for your municipality, or perhaps you build mapping applications for your clients- whatever the case, you become ‘the expert’ and a go-to resource in a very narrow discipline. There is typically little time or incentive to branch out and expand your horizons, which is unfortunate because you risk missing out on a world of interesting technology and alternative approaches to solving problems.

Our job in the Technology Solutions group was to figure out the best way to leverage technology resources to solve our clients’ problems. Oftentimes we were pulled into a project well after the scope had been written and the project was underway. My job was to work with project managers to find a way to deliver what we had promised and turn around a quality deliverable as quickly as possible.

Data in the Age of Information

What has become abundantly clear to me, particularly over the past year or so, is that the demand for fresh, actionable data is skyrocketing- across all industries and disciplines. In this Age of Information, data is an increasingly valuable form of currency. Virtually every project requires (or would benefit from) some type of data collection. Engineers, scientists, conservationists, archaeologists, all apply their specific skillsets to tackle a particular problem in a particular geographic area. From inspecting bridges, culverts, and utility poles to surveying sea turtle nesting sites, accurate data provides the foundation for sound decision making.

Enter Fulcrum

Fulcrum fills a crucial gap that has existed for years between low-end recreational GPS units (think eTrex) and high-end GPS data collectors (think Trimble). Recreational GPS units are dirt cheap and fairly accurate these days, but they lack any sort of sophisticated data collection capabilities. You get waypoint name and description fields, and a selectable symbol if you are lucky, but this just won’t cut it for most GIS projects where data integrity is paramount. Most recreational GPS units are built on closed platforms (Garmin, Magellen) while the industry standard for high end units seems to be Windows Mobile (ArcPad, TerraSync).

Smartphones and tablets however, offer reasonably affordable hardware paired with sophisticated open operating systems. Most have decent cameras and GPS sensors and they are connected to the web by default. There are tons of GPS and mapping apps out there, but Fulcrum focuses on the core features required for GIS data collection:

  • A core focus on offline usability
  • A map-centric approach that allows for custom, interactive, offline basemaps
  • An intuitive web-based form builder with advanced field logic rules for data integrity
  • A quality user experience that can be quickly mastered by field workers for efficiency
  • Data exports in a variety of GIS-friendly formats
  • A powerful API with webhook notifications for enterprise integration

Data Collection Process

In addition to providing tools and services for collecting data, the Fulcrum platform encourages a proactive approach to the data collection process. The act of sitting down and building your app forces you to think through the design of the data structure. This important task is often overlooked when you head out into the field with just a clipboard and camera. Engineers and scientists are tasked with solving problems and as consultants, often their only deliverable to the client is a report based on their findings. This report should be based on data that is clearly documented and can be independently reviewed. Fulcrum provides the tools that let professionals focus on their work without having to worry about IT hurdles.

Tips & Tricks

  • Work backwards from the deliverable to determine the structure of the app. If you are delivering a report on culverts that need to be replaced, you’ll want to have fields for condition, material, size, etc. These fields will help you prioritize which culverts should replaced first and at what expense.
  • Any data components you want to analyze should be constrained to numeric, single or multiple choice type fields that maintain data integrity. Avoid free form text fields, except for names, descriptions, etc.
  • Use sections and labels to make your app more intuitive. Take advantage of visibility and requirement rules for efficiency in the field.
  • A picture truly can be worth a thousand words. If you have a crew out in the field taking measurements and collecting data, be sure to snap a photo or two. It may help you avoid costly site revisits and can provide a great snapshot in time.
  • Ruggedized equipment is overrated. You will end up with expensive, obsolete hardware that you can’t justify upgrading. Budget for a replacement unit or two and buy some good cases.
  • Establish your specifications as soon as possible. Get your positional accuracy, photo quality, and deliverable requirements in writing so you can spec out your equipment.
  • Budget enough time upfront for designing and testing your data collection app and field procedures. A little extra time spent preparing and planning will save countless hours of data scrubbing.
  • Do a complete trial run-through before collecting any real data. Go over the data collection, QA/QC, analysis, reporting, and deliverable production to determine if you need to make any changes before sending out your field crews.

Impress Your Clients

Successful consultants are great at finding solutions that can be applied across a wide range of disciplines. I encourage you to give Fulcrum a try on your next data collection project. I’m confident that after your first project, you will find Fulcrum to be an invaluable tool that gets worked into subsequent projects. Before long you will find yourself at a proposal interview showing off your iPad loaded with a custom data collection app that you designed specifically for your client. That guy next to you holding the clipboard doesn’t stand a chance!

About the author

Bryan is a software engineer with Fulcrum, and works with our web and backend platform.

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