July 29, 2019 – Custom-built smartphone apps are changing the way staff at Rideau Valley Conservation Authority get their work done – and saving time, money and headaches in the process.
This spring, the RVCA launched its latest app, this one for classifying shorelines – something no other conservation group is doing digitally.
Gone are the bulky clipboards and windswept papers of previous surveys. And vanquished are the days of tedious data entry after a long season on the water.
These days, with the tap of an app staff can quickly analyze a shoreline, take a photo and input all the relevant data into a digital database, all from the palm of their hand – and from the middle of a river.
"It's amazing," said Adrienne Lewis, an aquatic resource technician with RVCA for the past 11 years. "It's fast and easy. We don't even have to label our photos, because we take them inside the app. We've eliminated 40 to 60 pieces of paper each day."
In-house GIS/database specialist Chris Czerwinski took the survey's old paper field form and turned it into a custom-made digital data chart using the platform Survey123.
This summer, as Adrienne heads down the river with a student by her side, she assesses shoreline conditions from her smartphone, ticking boxes in the app to make note of erosion, invasive species, vegetation and other factors that contribute to water quality and shoreline health.
The data is uploaded to the cloud, offering real-time results from the field and eliminating the need for manual data entry – and reducing the opportunity for human errors by half. The data is then easily formatted to inform RVCA programs and decisions.
It's a huge time savings.
"We've taken the workflow from the field and emulated that in the app," Chris said. "This survey project was supposed to take two years and they're going to finish it in one season. That speaks to the efficiency of the new process."
The RVCA has come a long way in a short time when it comes to tech.
"I built the RVCA's first app in 2013, and it was fairly novel at the time," Chris said.
But by today's standards, that first app is downright quaint: it ran on a GPS-equipped handheld device that could run a Windows operating system that's no longer even supported.
Since then, the RVCA has developed five different mobile apps to improve workflow in the field, assisting staff with water quality monitoring, aquatic insects sampling, shoreline classification, septic re-inspection, and forestry site visits.
"Ten years ago, everything was done on paper," Chris said. "Now, the amount of technology we use is amazing. It has exponentially driven workflows up."
The demand for mobile app solutions is so great, he's having to manage staff expectations: there's only so much that can be developed at once.
"Staff always want more, because they can see the benefits," he said. "There's so much more to come."
Collaboration is key
Conservation authorities across the province are all taking up the tech trend, developing apps for all manner of monitoring and tracking programs they run every day to promote healthy watersheds.
And with tight budgets and stretched staff, sharing has been caring. A key benefit of the new technology is the ability to share workflows with other conservation authorities and environmental groups. Chris shares what he creates and borrows from others. This saves time and effort for all the groups, because no one's reinventing the wheel.
This winter, for example, Chris will borrow the bones of a snowpack measuring app developed by Quinte Conservation and tweak it to suit the RVCA's needs – no need to create his own.
It's especially easy to collaborate when the apps are for monitoring programs that follow international, national or provincial data collection protocols. If everyone's following the same process with the same data criteria, a customized app can be used by any protocol partner, Chris said.
And the potential for new apps and digital solutions is endless.
"When I think where we'll be in five years, it's incredible," Chris said.