A protocol app for SITES - TagTags

During 2015, a protocol app for android devices has been developed for the Krycklan Catchment Study. This app - dubbed TagTags - is now finished and ready to be distributed within SITES. TagTags and it's all accompanying applications can be used to create and fill in digital protocols and it is very versatile. So far, protocols for stream sampling, lab work and plant inventory have been created and tested.

The extensive use of paper protocols in fieldwork is fraught with issues, both minor and major. Papers in the field sometimes become wet, lost or simply not readable (perhaps partially as a result of the infamous handwriting of academics). Paper protocols also have to be rewritten in order to make them digital, so that the data can be analyzed. Therefore it is common for personnel who work with large quantities of field data to wish that there were some other, simpler solution. At SLU in Umeå and Svartberget fieldstation (home of the Krycklan Catchment Study), biologist and software developer Kim Lindgren, together with the Krycklan team has been working on exactly this problem.

Consequently; TagTags (a mobile application that runs on Android devices) was born.  TagTags aims to minimize manual handling of data and streamline the process of getting data from the field to a larger database. The most obvious advantage is that there no longer is any need to rewrite data from a paper protocol to an electronic document. Furthermore, there is no risk of protocols becoming unreadable due to bad handwriting or rain, and it also reduces the risk of papers getting lost. However, if the protocols are constructed in the correct way they can also give helpful information back to the user. For example, automated calculations of rinse volume for groundwater wells. Overall, it will save you a lot of time.

TagTags Protocol applicaiton in practice. Photo by Peder Blomkvist
TagTags Protocol applicaiton in practice. Photo by Peder Blomkvist

Since the project's conception it has grown quite substantially, and now consists of a whole suite of applications (endearingly referred to as *Tags). We have one application for designing and modifying protocols, one application that acts as a server that can send and receive data that has been registered, and lastly we have the mobile app. However simplicity and ease of use has always been at the very core of the design philosophy. Information should not only be easy to read and write, the flow while using it should also be straightforward. This was the idea that spawned EditTags, which is the protocol designer in the software suite. Building a protocol in EditTags is like piecing together different building blocks. These blocks can be anything from simple text and number cells to tick boxes, coordinates from the built in GPS, roll down selection menus, as well as fields that perform calculations. TagTags also has the  possibility to include documents (like maps or PDFs) to help field and lab personnel during sampling.

The server (SyncTags), which is the most recent addition to the *Tags family, allows several people to work together on the same sampling using different devices. Their data will then be merged automatically when it is uploaded. Of course, the application works perfectly when you are offline, since the data can be synced whenever a network connection becomes available.

TagTags uses the most basic input and output format for data conceivable, simply consisting of a text file with comma-separated values (or rather, semi-colon separated values). This means that the only thing you need to start designing a protocol and accessing the collected data is any spreadsheet application, except for the app of course. Furthermore, it also means that *Tags-files are completely software agnostic and that more advanced users can quickly write new software and scripts that read and write data to protocols, to integrate *Tags with a database for example. You can view the app as a spreadsheet application adapted for mobile devices, but the dynamic nature of the app makes it so much more than that. Data fields can appear or disappear dynamically depending on what has been entered into the app, or depending on which samples are collected at certain sites, for example.

Furthermore, protocols can be designed for all kinds of data collection, which makes it extremely flexible and easily adapted to the needs of all field stations within SITES (as well as anyone else who would like to use it).  At SLU in Umeå, the app is now also being used for all lab protocols within the Krycklan Catchment Study.

The development of this suite of software has reached the point where we would like to make it available for anyone to use! Currently, most of the work is in polishing the documentation and design elements within the applications. The plan is to keep TagTags and the other applications in the *Tags-suite under active development, so that we can always meet the needs of users and stay updated as new technology is made available, and new ideas emerge to make it even more flexible and easy to use.

Watch the instruction video and contact Peder Blomkvist to get access to the software suite

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