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Field Tools for Climate Science
measuring distance between instruement in a slough

Problem Statement

For field teams in carbon research, data collection and entry is a way of life. The web applications and forms for data entry can be unnecessarily cumbersome to use.


Usability study findings suggest several ways of improving data entry, including account management, form optimization and specialized hardware. Some changes have been implemented. Others await improved technologies.

My Roles

  • Software developer
  • UX researcher
  • UX designer
Background: The global "flux" networks are data-producing communities of research teams who are responsible for hundreds of carbon observation towers, each of which can have multiple instruments. The Biological, Ancillary, Disturbance and Metadata (BADM) protocol is standardized across these networks. BADM supports the processing and interpretation of flux data by requiring field teams to not only specify which instruments are used, but also the distance between each instrument and a reference point. For flux networks, the reference point is a sonic anemometer.
Process: Usability studies were conducted on site in research labs as well as in the field at the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta. Field teams demonstrated their data collection and entry methodologies as IT staff observed. IT staff also performed data collection tasks.
  • Account management: Because many field team members are post-docs, their tenure can be short, and online account management can be a challenge. Password recovery options have been improved, reducing account management issues for IT staff.
  • Two data tools: BADM forms need to support the manual entry of varied kinds of data, from small controlled vocabularies to large data sets.
  • It could be cognitively challenging to break data input tools into a "field tool" (small data) and "lab tool" (large data).
  • Polar coordinates: Existing BADM input forms require that the distance from instrument to reference be measured along north-south and east-west axes. These requirements presented physical challenges to field teams.
  • Some input conventions could reduce demand on field teams, such as using polar coordinates instead of Cartesian coordinates for instrument locations.
  • Scripted interface: For reading and writing to BADM forms, some teams would like the option of using a scripted interface via a web service.
  • Field device: Field teams would benefit from a "field device" that would support brief in-field data entry on an inexpensive, sunlight- and weather-friendly input device with long-lasting batteries. This could be an e-paper device with a simple web browser that supports JavaScript and web storage.
  • There do not appear to be any off-the-shelf, field-ready commercial devices to meet the needs for a "field device".
carbon observation instrument tower

Instrument Tower

Carbon observation towers typically use a sonic anemometer as the reference point from which the locations of all other instruments are measured. Here the sonic anemometer is on the left, and a CO₂ open-path gas analyzer is on the right. Use of the eddy covariance method for measuring atmospheric flux depends on knowing the distance between instruments. [1]

Data Gathering in the Field: In the field, data is gathered in many ways. Vegetation canopy height, which varies by season and can be affected by human disturbance, can be measured at regular spatial intervals from the tower. Instrument data often has to be transferred to physical media such as an external hard drive. Instruments are periodically changed and relocated, requiring that the distance in three dimensions between them to be revised.

Because the dissolved oxygen sensors (DO) were submerged at the bottom of the slough, measuring their distance to the sonic anemometer was a challenge that required some preparation including waders.
field team measuring vegetation canopy height transferring
Example of an Existing Form Detail: The existing BADM input forms required that the distances between instrument be measured using Cartesian coordinates (along north-south and east-west axes).
existing badm descriptive text existing badm form
Example of a Proposed Form Revision: Using polar coordinates in place of Cartesian coordinates would be less demanding on field teams. Building trigonometric calculations into the forms would alleviate some of the physical challenge.
comparing cartesian and polar coordinate input revised badm form
[1] Photo credits throughout: Deb Agarwal