FishScan Saves Time and Improves Data for Alaskan Biologists

FishScan and Trimble Nomad effective and rugged enough for harsh Alaskan conditions.

Native Village Eyak, Alaska fish biologists had some problems; the streams they work in are in remote areas, their Palm computers kept failing in the harsh Alaskan conditions, their software was difficult to use, crashed several times a day and was expensive to customize. Anyone who has done field data collection knows that the labor costs to collect data rapidly eclipses all other project costs. To lose data irretrievably makes the entire project a waste of time and money. This was exactly the biologist problem – in this extreme environment, they were often losing data.

Every summer mature salmon return from the ocean and swim up Alaskan rivers to lay their eggs and spawn. To ensure sustainable salmon runs biologists collect data on the condition of the fish and the number returning. These data are used to regulate commercial fishing, sometimes opening and closing hourly. Accurate and timely fish counts are critical to supporting healthy sustainable salmon stocks into the future.

Hardware Solution

The biologists needed mobile hardware rugged enough to withstand the brutal Alaskan environment and software that was easy to use and securely protected their precious data. After extensive online research they contacted Alsea Geospatial Inc (AGI) and requested to borrow a Trimble Nomad 900, a waterproof, military grade (IP68) handheld computer. The Nomad features a waterproof extended cap that allows an over-sized SD card (such as the RFID reader) to be added to the handheld without compromising the ruggedness. Using a SD card tag reader integrates the RFID reader with the handheld computer, eliminating a second piece of hardware.

The biologists tested the Nomad and determined it was a major improvement over their existing mobile computers. They then asked if AGI could build software that would improve and simplify their data collection process.

Software Solution

At AGI there was no need to reinvent the wheel. Leveraging its team of software engineers and library of custom software tools allows AGI to rapidly create software to meet clients’ needs. “We draw from our extensive library of custom software and tools, our field biology experience and work closely with end users to quickly deliver solutions” says John Gabriel, principal at AGI.

Project software goals included simplifying and streamlining data collection, tools to allow nontechnical users to update dropdown lists of values (e.g. Chinook, Steelhead, Sockeye) without the help of a DBA or software engineer, mobile data backup to a remote database hosted on a cloud server for safe keeping, providing web tools to download, edit, analyze and generate statistical reports and reduce labor costs.

Tapping biologists’ expertise during web meetings and rapid prototyping, AGI built FishScan in less than three months. A focus on intuitive design kept the application easy to use and minimized training. Data validation helped eliminate data collection errors and immediately notified biologists of potential data problems or inconsistencies such as “is this fish really only 5 cm long”. For obvious reasons correcting data while still in the field is far superior to trying to correct it months later in the office.

Using a portable broadband wireless network, biologist were able to constantly and instantly upload data to the cloud server, even in the most remote and disconnected parts of Alaska. If a Nomad was dropped and washed away in the stream, the data was securely backed-up thousands of miles away. Logging into the website provided access to real-time data to Eyak Village staff and the public. AGI’s cloud service provides the Eyak biologists with enterprise level security and reliability without the cost of purchasing and maintaining their own hardware and software. Web-based administration tools provide automatic updates to the mobile devices – every time a device wirelessly touches the cloud server it checks for software updates and automatically downloads and installs them. Online reports summarize, export in a variety of formats (e.g. Word, Excel, PDF), and provide public access to select data.

Integrated Solution

Salmon are tagged with low frequency RFID tags which uniquely identify each fish. Using a tag reader inserted in the Nomad’s SD expansion slot, FishScan reads the tags and automatically enters the id into the correct database field. This eliminates user data entry errors and gets the fish back where it belongs, in the water, much faster.

All the pieces working together provide a complete solution. “As far as the application and hardware go, I thought both were very intuitive and user-friendly. The handheld worked very well in the field, it was resilient and extremely water proof” reports Vija Pelekis, Lead Fish Biologist for the Village. Since deploying the complete solution this summer, there have been no system failures, and labor costs have been reduced.