Ed FitzGerald surveys the interior of an historic seaplane hanger using NCPTT's new mobile app for post-disaster condition surveys.

Ed FitzGerald surveys the interior of an historic seaplane hanger using NCPTT’s new mobile app for post-disaster condition surveys.

NCPTT has completed field testing of a new mobile device-based survey tool for post-disaster condition assessments of buildings. Compared to traditional survey strategies that rely on paper-and-pencil forms that must subsequently be transcribed to a computer system, mobile devices offer immediate digitization of collected data at the point of survey, thus improving survey efficiency and accuracy. This allows for fast and automated data aggregation. It also improves adherence to complex or context-dependent forms, as the device determines which questions should be answered or skipped, and helps enforce quality control by restricting data values. (Patnaik, et al., 2008)

NCPTT’s mobile post-disaster condition assessment form is based on the paper-and-pencil Rapid Building and Site Condition Assessment originally developed in partnership with the Heritage Emergency Task Force for FEMA in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The form was redesigned for use with mobile devices and fields were streamlined to improve efficiency.

The new form is written for an open source mobile application and software suite called Open Data Kit (ODK), which allows anyone to easily create or edit their own data collection instruments using Microsoft Excel. Forms are then uploaded directly to a mobile device or to a remote server to be downloaded to the device as needed. After data collection is complete, the results can be uploaded to a remote server or pulled directly from the device using a tether cable. Currently, ODK is available for Android devices.

ODK was originally developed  for collecting patient data in rural clinics and conducting socio-economic surveys in developing countries. The demands of these resource-poor environments meant that the app had to be easy to use and operate without an internet connection. ODK’s user base has subsequently grown to include hundreds of non-profits, NGOs, and other organizations, among which are the World Health Organization, US AID, and the UN Refugee Agency.

The Field Test

Data uploaded to ODK's server can be quickly visualized through an interactive map.

Data uploaded to ODK’s server can be quickly visualized through an interactive map.

Field testing of the mobile app was undertaken at the end of June 2013 to refine the survey design, ensure stability for full-scale deployment, and to inform the development of survey procedures and a user manual. Working in consultation with the New York State Historic Preservation Office, the field team selected several neighborhoods and sites in New York City that might exhibit damage caused by Hurricane Sandy. The field team, composed of NCPTT staff members Kirk Cordell, Andrew Ferrell, and Ed FitzGerald, along with FEMA Cultural Resource Liaison, Jenny Aaronson, used the app to survey a total of 35 buildings.  In a timed trial using two mobile devices, the team was able to survey 22 buildings located in a beach bungalow historic district with minor storm damage in 1 hour and 23 minutes–that’s approximately 7.6 minutes per building per person! The app performed flawlessly and team members identified several improvements that will facilitate greater ease of use and efficiency.

Release and Future Prospects

A screen shot of the ODK rapid documentation form.

The ODK rapid documentation form is organized by building component. This screen shot shows the section for documenting damage to a building’s foundation.

With the successful testing of the ODK Android app in New York, project developer Ed FitzGerald expects to release a public version of the app along with a user manual in September 2013.

NCPTT plans to build on the experience to develop additional rapid documentation forms for disaster-damaged archeological sites, historic cemeteries, landscapes, and structures, as well as a suite of comprehensive forms for conducting historic resource surveys.

For more information, contact Sean Clifford or Andy Ferrell at NCPTT.

The XLS spreadsheet used to develop the form can be downloaded (right click and download) at: https://ncptt.nps.gov/wp-content/uploads/moca-b_v1-rev7.xls

Try a prototype rapid documentation form in your web browser:

Download this form, modify it, or create your own forms with formhub:


Patnaik, Somani, Emma Brunskill and William Thies. “Evaluating the Accuracy of Data Collection on Mobile Phones: A Study of Forms, SMS, and Voice.” Microsoft Research. September 22, 2008. Accessed July 29, 2013. http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/um/people/thies/patnaik-ictd09.pdf