When Two Worlds Collide

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Not Your Garden Variety Land Survey
When anthropological research teams travel to some of Alaska’s most remote communities to perform subsistence surveys, the challenges extend far beyond the average land survey. The challenges of travel in remote regions of Alaska, interviewing people of varied cultural backgrounds, and the potential for harsh climate conditions make these specialty surveys some of the most unique field projects in the country.

"Subsistence areas" are used by Alaska Natives for hunting, fishing, and gathering wild resources–all essential to the health and survival of rural communities, as well as integral to preserving Alaska Native culture. Subsistence surveys are critical to providing an accurate picture of ongoing subsistence activities across different geographic areas, against which future changes may be measured. For example, hunting and fishing areas crucial to the survival of a Native community could be endangered by new oil drilling operations or industrial development. While new development in the name of progress is often a threat to way of life for these communities, new technology is now helping us better understand and document this ancient world in ways never before possible.

Surveying the Symbiosis between Land and its Native People
Stephen R. Braund & Associates (SRB&A) is an anthropological survey and research firm based in Anchorage, Alaska. SRB&A employees combine anthropology and geographic expertise, along with a healthy passion for working in the beautiful but often harsh conditions of Alaska’s most remote communities. Research teams conduct studies of indigenous communities and subsistence practices that are often centuries-old. These activities are essential to the physical health and sustenance of residents; for Alaska Natives, engaging in subsistence activities is also integral to the preservation of indigenous cultural traditions and identity.

SRB&A research teams have been providing scientific subsistence, ethnographic, and cultural research in Alaska for nearly 40 years, on topics like subsistence and traditional knowledge studies, cultural landscapes, and development impact assessment and mitigation. Since its founding, SRB&A teams have traveled to the most remote regions of Alaska with their overstuffed, all-weather gear, including the most essential survey tools of the trade–paper maps, questionnaires and forms.

Over time, new technology started making its way into the backpack. Team members began carrying a mishmash of various devices, introducing digital cameras, handheld GPS devices and various software packages to help complete subsistence surveys and studies. Most recently, the introduction of GPS-enabled smartphones and tablets opened the door to utilizing these increasingly powerful multifunction devices to improve the accuracy, quality and efficiency of the field surveys.

When Surveying Goes Off the Grid and Off the Map
There are numerous challenges to conducting subsistence surveys, and mobile technology has helped overcome many of these difficulties while improving the quality and efficiency of field data collection. While different anthropological survey studies have specific research objectives, a common goal is capturing qualitative and quantitative spatial data that can help a better understanding and analysis of potential future impacts. With a mobile survey app, SRB&A hoped to facilitate more efficient data collection and improve the quality of resource use data in numerous areas of Alaska, thus establishing the all-important baseline of data for impact analyses.

Some of the most important subsistence surveys occur in remote regions, where network and cell connections are unreliable or quite often unavailable. Research teams need to be able to collect data in areas while offline and continue collecting data without relying on connectivity. SRB&A teams needed to be able to view US Geological Survey quad maps and imagery while surveying and conducting field research without being dependent on the network. Field research teams needed a mobile surveying solution that worked as well offline as online.

Whether studying the impact of industrial development on a fishing community or researching hunting areas for Dall sheep in the heart of the Brooks Range, field teams need the flexibility to meet diverse study and survey objectives. Needing to combine geographic mapping, data collection, and research interviews, SRB&A looked to deploy on-demand field data collection apps that were flexible enough to accommodate these disparate workflows and meet the needs of their anthropologists. One critical need SRB&A was looking to fill was the ability to map natural resource areas in any part of the state. Previously, data from areas located outside the boundaries of paper base maps were not easily recorded. They also needed a program that was not intimidating or difficult to use for field staff that were unfamiliar with GIS applications. Many mapping programs were expensive and difficult to use given their complexity and requirement for technical training.

While the field work was essential to subsistence surveys, the post-field research and analysis was equally important. In the past, a great deal of time and expense were associated with redundant manual entry and exporting data to various systems. The lack of an all-in-one solution that could provide offline maps, GPS capture, and custom data forms meant that data needed to be entered and quality controlled across different systems.

The geographic survey information was vital to the successful subsistence survey, but the anthropological perspective meant going beyond the map. Conducting interviews, gathering scientific data and researching available literature on a community were intrinsic to the method. The ability to combine spatial data with structured and unstructured data elements was at the core of subsistence research.

With all the challenges to deploying mobile technology, SRB&A considered building a custom app. But given the speed at which mobile technology changes, SRB&A did not want to build and maintain their own proprietary software. The ideal solution would allow them to customize an existing, commercially-maintained platform with offline maps and forms tailored to meet the needs of different projects and clients.

Subsistence Surveys: There’s An App for That
SRB&A looked at several different surveying app solutions, eventually deploying TerraGo Edge on iPads. The surveying app gave them high-precision GPS support, offline mapping, custom forms and an open database. With the introduction of mobile technology, SRB&A field teams finally had an all-in-one solution at their fingertips. They were able to quickly and easily deploy custom apps to user iPads, replacing a number of paper maps and forms. The benefits of mobile technology were numerous.

According to Paul Lawrence, Research Associate at SRB&A, "TerraGo Edge helped to drastically simplify our data collection process. In the past we were forced to use multiple approaches and manually combine the data later. Because this software has both custom forms and maps, our field users could collect data all in one place. This saves us both time and money out in the field and back at the office, where we have to clean up the data. We also found it’s one of the best apps available for handling offline maps. In Alaska, we are often disconnected and this was of utmost importance to us."

Users enjoyed a clean, simple user interface for data collection with customizable notebooks and forms. Deployment proved to be easier than traditional software, since users anywhere could download the free app from the Apple App Store. With onboard GPS, they also eliminated the need for proprietary hardware. A customizable interface meant that field workers could be up and running, collecting data in minutes without needing to study a user manual. Importantly to SRB&A, field workers could also access offline maps without a network connection. By bundling offline maps with project notebooks ahead of time, users would have anywhere, anytime access to terrain data and common place names that made referencing their data easier. Data could be collected and then synced back to the server at a later time when researchers had connectivity.

From a management point of view, if and when cell coverage or Wi-Fi was available, it was important that the data could be synced back and easily analyzed. The cloud-based solution meant SRB&A could view job progress in real time from a web dashboard. They could also extract field data in multiple open formats to any system or database for post-field processing and analysis.

New Survey Tech Connects Us to the Past
The impact of new development on subsistence areas and indigenous culture is a global issue. Perhaps ironically, the progress of the latest mobile technology can help us better shape that understanding and provide insights into the intersection of the natural environment, native cultures and modern infrastructure. The spatial and anthropological nature of subsistence surveying provides a unique glimpse into the possibility of applying the latest technology to preserve our most ancient assets. Too often, the economic and environmental impact of man-made development leaves us with clear winners and losers. At least with advances in mobile surveying technology, the progress seems to be shared and everyone benefits from that development.

Mike Gundling serves as Vice President of Product Management at TerraGo. He has more than 20 years experience in launching marketchanging products in the mobile, geospatial, aviation and enterprise software industries. To learn more visit www.terragotech.com.

A 2.721Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE