9 common mistakes that could ruin your field data collection operation!

Organizing field data collection operations from scratch can be stressful and overwhelming. Typically, they involve a lot of people and occur in dynamic environments, where control is limited. Following the article 10 questions to help plan your field data collection, we want to continue to help you during the preparation of a data collection operation in the field, by telling you 9 common mistakes to avoid:

1 – Not planning ahead of time

Field data collection operations are complex and require careful preparation. Skipping the planning part is one of the most common pitfalls! Too often does this lead to having your teams realize they are unable to collect data properly once in the field. This will most likely delay their work and waste precious time. In the worst cases, your teams may even need to stop their operation and return to the office.

Make sure to build a list of all factors that could prevent your teams from conducting their field operation, and find ways to attenuate them. These factors may be:

  • Environmental
  • Operational
  • Legal
  • Etc.

Think ahead of anything that might go wrong because it probably will!

All your team members must know of these risks and be aware of the actions to take in their occurrence. Let’s look at the second most common mistake: Lack of training.

2 – Not training your teams enough

In many things, training is the key to success. This is especially true when speaking of field data collection operations! Properly trained personnel usually perform faster, better, and with more confidence. Not only should training help your teams collect data, but it should also instruct them to find the right data!

Having the right data increases confidence in data sets, which enables optimal quality analysis and reporting. In addition to data quality, proper training helps ensure your teams are all working on the same level.

Everyone sees the world differently. Consequently, when different people are collecting data, their perceptions likely vary. For example, a person might report a piece of equipment as dangerously damaged. Another person could find it to be functional. Calibrating your team’s processes reduces variations in data sets, which reinforces their validity.

Properly training your teams increases the quality of data they collect. Contrarily, sending them in the field without the right tools and equipment could compromise their work.

3 – Not using the right tools

Providing the appropriate equipment to your teams will improve their efficiency in the field and the accuracy of the data they collect. These tools come in various forms:

  • GPS receivers
  • Tablets with a data collection app
  • Measurement equipment
  • Drones
  • Etc.

The main expense in the field most likely will be your personnel, so investing in tools to improve their efficiency makes sense. Trying to save a few dollars on equipment may end up inflating the costs of your operation!

The right tools should boost your team’s potential in the field, as long as they know how to use them.

Image of two people using a data collection application in a field.

4 – Not practicing with your equipment

So, think you’ve found the perfect tool, one that promises to solve all of your problems? Great! Now please spare yourself from another costly mistake. Sending your teams in the field without a thorough knowledge of their equipment is a recipe for disaster! Any equipment or software requires a learning period. Even the simplest of tools take time to master.

How this new tool can integrate your workflows also deserves some of your consideration. Should you completely change the way you work to use this tool? Wouldn’t it be better if this tool was flexible enough to integrate your workflows easily?

Let’s move on to another common mistake in data collection operations regarding workload.

5 – Underestimating the data processing workload

Field data collection is hard work! Not only do your teams need to stay intellectually focused throughout the entire day, but they are also at the mercy of the environment: Rain, wind, sun, etc.

By the time your teams return to the office after a long day collecting data, they may be tired, even exhausted at times. How can you ensure that they process data properly and promptly? Things may be tougher if you’re still using paper forms or inappropriate tools. Sometimes, you may even need to copy complete datasets manually. The best way to avoid bottleneck situations in data processing is to assign enough people to the task. 

Here is something I’ve learned from working for more than 10 years as a field data manager in emergency response: You should assign an average of one person to process the data manually* collected by three field teams. Using a data management platform means analyzing the same given amount of data will require fewer people.

Now that you’re taking into consideration data processing, have you thought of how much data your operation requires?

6 – Collecting too much information

Have you ever heard of big data and its promise to revolutionize the world? For the benefit of your data collection operation, please steer clear from this concept! Instead, try to focus on collecting just the right amount of data. Try not to collect unnecessary data just in case ”it might eventually become of some importance in a vague and distant future”! Collect only what you need! Not only will over-collecting data decrease your team’s efficiency in the field, but it will also make data processing more complex.

7 – Collecting too few information

Collecting too little information will jeopardize your ability to meet your goals. You might think this is self-evident, believe me, I wish it was. The harsh truth is that you cannot create knowledge out of missing data. Let’s not get into details about this, but try to make sure to include all required fields in your form, to enable your data analysis team to work properly. How can you be certain it does? By confirming they have all the required data when you get your field team to practice with their equipment.

This covers most aspects of the data your field team will actively collect, now if only there would be some information to verify it! This brings us to another common data collection operation mistake…

8 – Not collecting metadata

Metadata represents data collected by your teams indirectly, which pursues what they’ve collected. At the bare minimum, your metadata should help you answer these three important questions:

  • Who collected each data
  • When was the data collected
  • Where was the data collected

Metadata is invaluable for quality assurance, quality control (QAQC), and to get information from data many years after its collection.

So, you think you’re all set? Wait, here comes the most common mistake that could ruin your field operation.

9 – Not focusing on your objectives

So far, we’ve touched base on how complex field data collection operations can be, and how many factors may threaten their outcome. Sending people in the field to collect data, bring it back and process it, is a challenging endeavor.

It’s easy to stray from the objectives that justify your field data collection in the first place, with all these steps necessary to ensure your operation’s success. When in doubt, step back and take some time to reflect on your objectives. Focusing on your goals will enable you to make the right decisions and better articulate what you expect from your teams in the field.

Now that you know of all these mistakes that may threaten your data collection, we hope you’ll be able to avoid them!  Don’t forget that your field operation’s success begins with thorough preparation.  If you’re looking for a way to make your field operation simpler,  we invite you to try Coral Collect for free.

*Writer’s note: Collecting data with paper forms, a GPS receiver and photographic camera.

10 questions to help plan your field data collection

Your organization has mandated you to organize a field data collection operation. Whether you are experienced in planning this type of operation or not, to think about it first is often a good idea! When it comes to field data collection operations, there are plenty of elements to consider. We’ve developed 10 questions to guide your reflections, to help you plan your field data collection as efficiently as possible.

1 – What is the purpose of this field data collection operation?

This question aims to establish the basis of your reflection. Understanding the purpose of your field data collection and knowing how the end-user will exploit it is important. You must also be aware of the format in which they are expecting your data:

  • A detailed report, in PDF format
  • An Excel datasheet
  • A geographic map
  • A data file compatible with Geographic Information Systems (GIS) (GeoJSON or Shapefile)

Keep your operation’s purpose in mind all through this reflection. The second question introduces time constraints concerning your operation.

2 – When would be the optimal moment to collect your data?

We invite you to reflect on the moment at which your field data collection should take place. For example, if you need to collect data found on the ground in a natural area. You might not be able to access it if snow covers the ground. If you’re collecting data on a seashore, you might only be able to access data at low tide. If your teams are collecting data door to door, they have more chances to meet people at home after regular business hours then during the daytime.

Depending on the type of data you need to collect, you must think of the optimal moment to collect it. Our next question introduces how time might affect the quality, even the validity of data.

3 – What is the lifespan of the data you’ll be collecting?

We’re asking you to reflect on the way time might affect your data. Should you analyze data based on a single field collection operation, or should you be observing your data’s evolution over time?

Let’s use a data collection on surface control on a road network. Temperature variations and the number of vehicles will directly impact the state of the road surface. In this situation, such as in many others, it would be better to observe data collected a few times during a year.

Following this reflection on the consequences of time over data, here is a fourth question, which might save you some time!

4 – Is there any existing data available?

Here’s a simple question that might save a lot of time during your data collection operation! Would your organization already have data that you could use? Is there any open source or public data that you could integrate into your data sets? If so, this could spare a considerable amount of time from your operation.

Let’s move on to where your data collection operation will take place, with a fifth question.

5 – In which environment will your data collection operation take place?

The environment of your data collection operation may have a direct impact on data accessibility. Some types of environments might enable your teams to collect data with ease. For example, if they need to collect data on grounds owned by your organization. Other settings might complicate their task. For example, if the data they need to collect is located on top of telecommunication towers, sitting on grounds requiring granted access. 

In some instances, you may even need to collect data where sending people would be unsafe. Thus, you might need to seek alternative solutions or technological tools, such as these different types of imagery:

  • Satellite
  • Aerial
  • Drones

This reflection on the environment in which your field data collection operation will take place leads us to a sixth question.

6 – How will your data be geographically positioned?

The nature of the data you will be collecting should determine how you should position it geographically.

A simple postal code might be sufficient to position data when collecting door to door. In other instances, latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates might better suit the needs of the end-user. For example, if collecting data on municipal infrastructures (street-lights, fire hydrants, street signalization, etc.). Depending on the nature of the data, you most likely will use one of the following means to position data:

  • The civic address if your operation is taking place in an urban environment
  • Noting coordinates taken with a GPS pointer
  • A software application on a mobile phone or tablet
  • Surveying equipment

The nature of the data required by the objective and the deliverables of your operation directly influence the choice of equipment. This seventh question is also concerning your data collection’s environment.

7 – How will your teams find their way and know where to collect data in the field?

Depending on where your data collection will take place, there might be an internet connection available or not. Regardless, your teams in the field should have proper orientation and know where to collect data. So now, think upon what you’ll be providing for them to know their whereabouts in the field. After all, many options are available:

  • Paper maps
  • Electronic maps downloaded on mobile
  • Cartographic software applications
  • A data collection application that includes a mapping interface

Following these reflections about your operations environment, our next question brings us back to data.

8 – Which data is essential to reach your collection’s goals?

We invite you to reflect upon the data necessary to reach your operation’s objective. It may be tempting to collect data that is superfluous, just because it is available. However, not only might this complicate data collection in the field, but also make its management more difficult.

Once you determine which data is primordial, you may start working on the form that your team will be using in the field.

When establishing data collection forms, one of the best practices consists of inserting multiple-choice questions to your form, as often as possible. This technique enables you to:

  • Reduce the amount of time you devote to collect data
  • Standardize the data 
  • Scale down on the amount of time your data management requires

Let’s move on with a question concerning data that will support the one collected in your field operation.

9 – How will you collect metadata?

Supporting the data you collect during your operation with metadata is a strong recommendation. Metadata allows you to keep track of who collects the data, where, and when. This most likely will be useful throughout your operation, and perhaps even after, in some cases. Metadata helps you:

  • Follow the evolution of your teams in the field
  • Check for data trends and anomalies effectively
  • Offer traceability to your data

For more information on the importance of metadata you can refer to the 8th error of the article: 9 common mistakes that could ruin your field data collection operation!

It is preferable to integrate the collection of metadata directly in the form your team will use in the field. Alternatively, you may choose to use tools that automate these steps in your processes. Which takes us to our last question:

Image of a person collecting data in a field with the help of an app on a tablet.

10 – Which equipment or technology might help you collect data most efficiently?

The purpose of this question is to help you determine which tools could optimize your field data collection operation, based on the expected results. Nowadays, data collection applications, such as Coral Collect, optimize the efficiency of field data collection operations. Coral Collect helps by:

  • Improving your team’s orientation in the field while enabling real-time data sharing
  • Implementing geographic coordinates to the data automatically at the moment of collection
  • Adding photos directly into your forms
  • Enabling the export of data into reports instantly 
  • Automating the transfer of data into the database, thus reducing the time allocated to data management by 40% in comparison to traditional methods.

Imagine the amount of time transcribing data manually onto paper forms requires! Data collection applications eliminate this type of manipulation in your process.

We sincerely hope that these questions will help guide your thinking so you may plan your field data collection efficiently. We invite you to try the Coral platform for free! You will be able to collect, save, and share data in the field in a collaborative way with everyone involved in your operation.