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Field data collection with Fulcrum, Mapbox, and NetHope

November 6, 2019

Last week we hosted a hands-on workshop on data collection with Fulcrum during the NetHope Summit in San Juan. As part of the joint workshop from myself and Mapbox’s Mikel Maron, we wanted to showcase how to go from the beginning to end — creating a mobile collection survey through field collection all the way to visualization (online or disconnected) with Mapbox’s Atlas server.

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How NetHope uses Fulcrum

To kick off our session, NetHope’s Director of Information Management John Crowley gave an introductory “before and after” segment talking about their experiences deploying Fulcrum in a number of environments over the past year. NetHope’s key application for Fulcrum and field data collection involves their work deploying internet connectivity to crisis-affected places, in support of their member organizations in re-establishing access on-the-ground during response efforts. They work with organizations like Care, IFRC, MSF, MercyCorps, Oxfam, and more to provide technology resources to help deliver aid and services.

We first linked up with John back in 2013, while participating in the Naval Postgraduate School’s JIFX field experiments series at Camp Roberts. During JIFX, we worked with FEMA on data collection workflows and best practices for damage assessments and disaster recovery operations, conducting experimental work with Fulcrum and various other tools (other software applications, comms equipment, tablet hardware, etc) to see how they performed in an environment that simulated a real disaster scenario.

Testing Fulcrum at JIFX Camp Roberts with FEMA - Field data collection with Fulcrum, Mapbox, and NetHope feature image
Testing Fulcrum at JIFX Camp Roberts with FEMA

After joining NetHope, John saw the potential to bring Fulcrum into their workflows for managing team deployments — a chance to create a smoother, faster, more reliable process for managing thousands of pieces of equipment and hundreds of staff deployed to different places around the world. NetHope first used Fulcrum in Colombia, setting up an environment to track networking equipment set up in Bogotá. But their first experience in responding to a major natural disaster was during Cyclone Idai in Mozambique earlier this year.

Cyclone Idai

In response to Idai, the team used Facebook’s Disaster Maps data for immediate feedback on connectivity. They collected this data from Facebook mobile users, which identified areas with varying signal strengths. Subsequently, they integrated this data into Fulcrum. This step allowed field operations crews to pinpoint where to establish crucial communication equipment. Consequently, they set up satellite links, WiFi access points, and other devices to restore communication for responders and citizens.

NetHope work in Beira, Mozambique, with Facebook connectivity data
NetHope work in Beira, Mozambique, with Facebook connectivity data

Recently NetHope has been deployed in the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian ravaged the northern Bahamian islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama. Using their learnings from prior activations in South America and Eastern Africa, they modified some of their Fulcrum apps to better fit the process of team management, optimizing time on site, improving the quality of the collected data, and making it easier for information management teams to work with the data for analysis.

The data collected inside of Fulcrum is synced up into a PostGIS database, then linked with other data sources from Cisco’s Meraki dashboard for network hardware management and Splunk for aggregating network logs and performance data to optimize where hardware gets deployed.

The key takeaway John covered in the workshop was how Fulcrum and an improved field data collection process are “changing the way NetHope works.” Our mission for all Fulcrum users is to not only bring better tools, but to have those tools open up new opportunities to do bigger and better things with your time, improve your data, and create happier data consumers.

‍Damage assessments with Fulcrum

In phase two of our workshop, we developed a simulated Damage Assessment app with our attendees. This exercise demonstrated the swift creation and deployment of a data collection survey, requiring no coding expertise. Subsequently, we guided our group outside the conference hotel, which we dubbed “the field,” to engage in data collection activities. Here, they participated in a mock post-disaster scenario, assessing damage extents. Our aim was to showcase the simplicity, speed, and reliability of Fulcrum’s field-facing components to all present, primarily GIS and IT experts.

Damage assessment data collection in Puerto Rico (Image: NSF StEER team)
Damage assessment data collection in Puerto Rico (Image: NSF StEER team)

After 20 minutes we had a nice sampling of damage assessment data which we looked at in Fulcrum’s Editor tool, demonstrating how you can do QA, see what was collected by whom, view photos, and run reports. We then segued into loading the resulting data into the Atlas environment to make some maps with.

‍Data visualization with Mapbox Atlas

Mapbox Atlas Server (Image: Mikel Maron)
Mapbox Atlas Server (Image: Mikel Maron)

Atlas is a portable “platform in a box” that contains Mapbox’s global dataset, running on a small server with a network access point, storage, and a ruggedized case for carrying into the field in an operations center. Atlas also bundles Mapbox Studio, a map authoring tool for styling and publishing basemaps with Mapbox data, and Kepler, an open source geospatial analysis tool you can use in a web browser.

Using Fulcrum’s Data Share functionality and Kepler’s ability to load a datasource directly from a URL, we brought our damage assessment data right into the Kepler visualization environment where the dataset instantly appears as points on a map.

Visualization in Kepler.gl
Visualization in Kepler.gl (Image: Mikel Maron)

The example demonstrates various visualization options in Kepler, showing damage assessment data from Hurricane Maria. First, the NSF StEER team collected and loaded the data onto Atlas. Subsequently, users create visualizations in Kepler. Then, those connected to Atlas’s local WiFi network can view and query this data. This capability proves crucial in disconnected settings like crisis centers or disaster relief mobile sites.

Further experimentation

If you’re interested in learning more about how you might take advantage of Fulcrum Community and Atlas deployments, get in touch with us. We’re still in the early days of the integration and exploring other use cases to experiment with.