Civil Engineering

The Pen That Writes Directly to ArcMap

17 Jun, 2008 By: Kenneth Wong

Adapx's Capturx pen and software combo enables even nonprofessionals to perform GIS fieldwork.


Marion O'Connor, a teacher from the Bicentennial Elementary School in Nashua, New Hampshire, couldn't help noticing the empty plastic bottles, cans, and discarded appliances that had accumulated over time along various bike trails in the city's Southwest Park. So, with Earth Day approaching, she decided to tackle the scattered piles of debris. At the same time, she wanted to map out all the bike trails within the area.

O'Connor assembled a small crew of students, teachers, and community members. To remove the items that were simply too big for the volunteers, she would need help from the city's Department of Public Works (DPW). She envisioned marking up a map with the GPS coordinates of the oversize items she encountered, then turning over the annotated map to the DPW.

"I think we can do better than that," Angelo Marino, Nashua's chief assessor and GIS coordinator, told her. Then he showed her a pen that could digitally store what she was writing. Once she had finished marking up with this pen, the little dots she'd placed on the map could be uploaded as points into a GIS application.

In essence, O'Connor and her team would be turning trash and bike trails into GIS features — without understanding anything about GIS.

The Pen is Mightier Than the Mouse
The pen Marino loaned O'Connor was Capturx, the digital pen developed by Adapx. Bundled with ArcGIS, the pen operates as a field data collection device for GIS and CAD users.

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Capturx, developed by Adapx, is a package that contains a pen, docking station, and software. Equipped with memory chips and sensors, the pen stores the user's writings and drawings in its memory, available for upload later.

When you print an ArcMap file of an area from an existing dataset using the Capturx software and a standard color printer, you produce a watermarked map with a barely detectable dotted border around it (for a list of supported printers, visit the Adapx Web site).

In the field, when you begin marking up the map, the pen uses its built-in sensors, processors, and memory chip to record the positions of the features you're drawing in relation to the watermark. It also stores your handwriting in digital form, convertible to computer text afterwards. This allows you to later use a docking station to directly upload the points, features, and annotations back into ArcGIS, bypassing the need to manually reenter the information collected on the paper map to the digital file.

Shark Teeth Bike Trail
Equipped with GPS devices on loan from the University of New Hampshire's Extension Division, the volunteers arrived at the city's Southwest Park prior to Earth Day.

"In about three minutes, we were able to show them how to mark trash collection zones," said Marino. This ensured that the teams worked within four delineated zones across the 233-acre park, avoiding overlaps.

"The neat thing is," Marino said, "after the meeting was over, we docked the pen in the docking station, uploaded the markups. Five minutes later, we had a PDF map with all the features ready for distribution."

In the field, when a volunteer encountered a fallen tree or an abandoned washing machine, he or she recorded the point using one of the GPS units. When transferred into ArcMap, the file was automatically populated with the features pinpointing the locations of the items awaiting disposal.

While in the field, the overeager volunteers alternately tagged debris on the roadsides and the bike paths at the same time, producing a series of zigzags. "From a distance, they didn't look bad," recalled Marino. "But when you zoomed in, they looked like shark teeth."

But with the use of the Adapx pen, the city's GIS staff was able to produce a map with well-defined bike paths. Later, the same map served as the basis for the DPW's trash collection operation.

When the DPW field supervisor was ready to get to work, he picked up the printed map tagged with the trash locations. Using the Capturx pen, he identified where to place the sanitary vehicles and garbage bins to collect the hazardous items identified by the Earth Day volunteers.

Click for larger image
When a user draws points on a watermarked map using the Capturx pen, the data can later be uploaded into ArcMap as features. (Click image for a larger version)

Inventory on the Run
A week ago, the Park and Recreation Department (PRD) supervisor was introduced to Capturx. Anticipating how the PRD might deploy the pen, Marino said, "They're going out with printed maps to mark all the locations of the benches, for instance. Or for event planning, they can mark up where the temporary parking spots, gates, paths, and fences should be."

Marino's office recently printed a map with all the city properties so the PRD staff could use it to mark up where they planned to plant flowers. Similarly, the DPW staff is using Capturx to mark up all the detour routes in use while a major road reconstruction is in progress.

"The folks in the field can mark up the lane changes, street closures, and other GIS features without knowing anything about GIS," Marino said. "Every day, if [the routes] change, all they have to do is mark up another map. A moment later, it's uploaded to our Web site as a PDF or JPEG file."

Perhaps the greatest advantage Capturx offers, compared to the use of Tablet PCs, PDAs, and other portable field-annotation devices, is its ability to preserve the familiar paper-based workflow.

"If you equip your staff with portable devices loaded with GIS applications, you have to train everyone on GIS," Marino pointed out. "With this pen, all you have to tell them is to check the feature they want, then put it on the map."

Marino is also exploring the possibility of deploying Capturx in emergency management. The idea that first responders could inform their colleagues of the exact locations of accidents simply by marking up printed maps is an appealing proposition.

Adapx is currently working on enabling the pen for wireless transmission so field data can be remotely uploaded into back office GIS servers. Capturx for ArcGIS Desktop is priced at $1,950 for single pen, or $8,995 for five pens.


About the Author: Kenneth Wong


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