Tablet Computers in Fisheries

Submitted by Jeff Kopaska

Last month, I used the Gutowsky et al. article from the October 2013 issue of Fisheries to kick off further discussion of mobile computing devices for fisheries work.  That column addressed smartphones, and this month we will move on to tablet computers.

Tablet computers are currently one of the fastest growing segments in the technology sector.  The Pew web site indicates that ownership of these devices has increased from 3% of American adults in May 2010 to 34% in May 2013.  The popular media indicate that this type of device was one of the hot buys for holiday giving, and I personally added to the craziness by purchasing two such devices for my children.  So, the percentage is likely much higher today!

Ruggedized tablet PCs have been used by Minnesota DNR (MDNR) fisheries staff for field data collection for a decade.  Devices such as Panasonic Toughbooks and various models from Xplore Technologies, the devices MDNR utilize, represent viable options for field data collection.  When equipped with extra batteries, screen protection, and tethers, the total cost of one of these devices runs about $5,000.  They work well in all conditions and are built to last.  They can be a wise investment, but the up-front cost to outfit an entire agency can be a challenge.

The great thing about tablet computers is that they look like a sheet of paper, a field data sheet.  You can set up the data entry screens on the device to emulate historic data collection processes.  A few technology tweaks here and there, and you can even make data entry easier than it used to be.  Think of it, field data collection at a similar (or perhaps faster) rate to the past, and no time spent punching in numbers back in the office.  This is the type of efficiency improvement we are supposed to be after, since we are all supposed to be doing more with less.

The Iowa DNR purchased four of these devices for test deployment to staff over the past five years.  Acquiring the first two went off without a hitch, and the staff loved using them.  The purchase of the second pair, however, kicked off a landslide of problems.  New IT requirements came into play during the time between purchases, and the devices were held hostage by our IT department for over a year while they tried to determine how to encrypt and password protect a device with no keyboard.  This was the watershed moment regarding my education about IT security, and it is the single most important issue agencies face as they attempt to implement new technology solutions.

Last month, I mentioned that Lee Gutowsky observed that government agencies are hesitant to embrace new technologies.  I think that internal policies within government agencies, specifically those related to IT security, are the real culprit.  When you speak to IT security officers, they like to talk about data security.  The first line of defense is confidential data, until you explain that we tend to give the public all the data we collect if they want it.  Regardless of that, they say that the device must be encrypted, and all data transmitted from the device must be encrypted.  They also say that since the device is capable of connecting to a “secure” network, there must be a way to prevent unauthorized access using the device if it is lost or stolen.  Remember, since smartphones get their data from a cell phone data network rather than a hard-wired connection, they are somewhat exempt from these requirements.

These requirements may seem esoteric, but this is where the rub is between the technology we see in use in society and the technology we cannot use within agencies. Devices that operate on the Android and the iOS operating systems do not have robust enough encryption or password protection to deter hackers.  For us, that meant no Apple iPads, Samsung Galaxy tabs, Lenovo IdeaTabs, etc.  For the last few years, these have been the lower priced, attractive options that had me drooling to embark upon a new field data collection test.  It took a while, but I finally figured out WHY we were not allowed to play with these devices.

There may be a light at the end of the tunnel.  Microsoft has recently introduced the Surface line of tablet devices.  These computers work on a windows operating system, so the IT people seem to think they might be able to clear a few more IT policy hurdles with these devices.  My hope is that once we can start field testing these computers, which cost as little as $300, we can find out if it is more cost effective to deploy less expensive devices that may need to be replaced more frequently.  If so, I believe agencies will be willing to outfit field crews for $500 apiece, while they can’t for $5,000 apiece.  Stay tuned!

Jeff Kopaska is a graduate of Iowa State University currently employed as a biometrician in fisheries research at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.  Jeff is very involved in the American Fisheries Society (AFS) where he has served as the President of AFS-Fisheries Information and Technology Section and is the current Chair of AFS-Electronic Services Advisory Board.  Jeff also serves as the Iowa representative to MARIS (Multi-state Aquatic Resources Information System) and is on the Science and Data Committee of the National Fish Habitat Partnership.  As an employee of Iowa DNR Fisheries, Jeff oversees many of the technology-related efforts undertaken.

This blog post has been adopted from Jeff’s Digital Revolution column, which is featured monthly in the AFS Fisheries Magazine.  Continue the conversation here by leaving your comments or you may contact Jeff directly via email.

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