Do you know that feeling to sit and wait for the application to answer? Maybe you lost some data for the third time and have to renter again. Or you had to change location to the nearest hotel in hope of a more stable Internet drinking one cup of coffee after the other. Most Country offices within humanitarian aid, such as Mine Action, are working in a context were Internet is rather unstable. Applications we know as easy and flexible in high-speed Internet countries are getting annoying and tedious. Nobody likes his speed of work to be dependent on the speed of Internet especially when Internet speed is slow.
To find an appropriate solution for this kind of context it is valuable to distinguish between synchronous (browser based applications, client server based) and asynchronous data exchange (email and Cloud-Based File Sharing). While email is well known, Cloud-Based File Sharing (CBFS) is another asynchronous type of data exchange. CBFS can be of great advantage for synchronization of data collected in the field. Even if Internet is not reliable most field employees can get contact with mobile Internet either during their working day or within few days. Those of you that know Dropbox already know what a Cloud Based File Sharing system. But there are a lot of them with different qualities especially if you want to use them for more than just private use there are some further considerations to make.
What is Cloud-Based File Sharing?
CBFS was developed mainly because we are using more and more different devices. The need to access all my data on all my devices anywhere has therefor increased. Dropbox is probably one of the most well known Cloud-Based File Sharing system. The principle is simple. When I store a file in my file manager on my PC I want to get access to the same file on my telephone while I am on the go. After dinner sitting in my couch I might want to review the document on my tablet. A Cloud-Based File Sharing system automatically syncs the folders I want to be shared. If I want to share a document with a friend or colleague I can simple share the document or the folder with him and it automatically syncs to all his devices. Since the data is synced while I am doing other things I will barely notice if Internet is weak or unstable.
Figure 1 – The basic idea behind Cloud-Based File Sharing
OwnCloud is creating resilience in data synchronization for DEDUCT Demining
There are many different Cloud-Based File sharing systems. Some are more for the consumer market. Other are more appropriate for business environments. DEDUCT Demining is using OwnCloud. OwnCloud is run on a private server. All files remain under your control because you determine where your files are hosted. Lets illustrate how DEDUCT and OwnCloud can be used in a typical Mine Action setting.
Figure 2 – Typical setup for field data collection. Data is transferred by paper reports and entered at the country office. From there it is transferred by email to other shareholders. Sadly all to often the data is once again reentered several times with high risk for fatal errors.
By using DEDUCT Demining tedious error prone reentering of data is avoided. Due to practical design of the forms with pre defined choices and automatic filling of entry fields quality of data can be improved substantial and at the same time it saves time and resources for data synchronization. Data can be stored in various formats ready for the next recipient after quality control at the country office.
In practice the data collected on the tablet in the field is synced to the users own cloud account. The account is set up so the back office has access to the data as a read only access. Changes to the data can only be done by the device. Changes made in the cloud will be overwritten by the device at the next synchronization. The back office will typical QA the data and merge the data into reports for Operational Management. As described in a earlier post the data can be reviewed by operational management on their PC or any mobile device. To avoid the use of internet browser it is necessary to install a OwnCloud client on each device you want to use for viewing the data. In the same way Head Office and National Mine Action Centers can get access to the data.
Figure 3 – Typical setup for field data collection with DEDUCT Demining. Data is transferred from the device to the cloud and then shared to the back office. For quality matters it is reviewed and merged by the back office before shared to third parties.
By establishing regular rhythms related to the daily routines of operation the need for high speed internet at all time is eliminated. At the same time easy access to operational data is enabled and quick response if needed is enabled. Even colleagues that are not using DEDUCT can get access to the data through OwnCloud. Field experience have shown a stable operation. In very slow internet conditions the iPad might have to be connected to a power source and thereby avoid to let the iPad go in sleep mode. All mobile device systems have some kind of Build-in energy saving strategies that hinders long time use. So if a data synchronization takes longer than 15 minutes it is an good idea to connect the device to a power source first. These are some of the rather simple but important routines that have to established when introducing mobile devices for data collection.