Mobile Data Collection: Interoperability Through New Architecture

by Elisabeth Vinek, Sulaiman Mukahhal and Olivier Cottray - view pdf

Information management (IM) requires close collaboration between all parties in a mine action program and cannot be carried out in isolation. Effective IM involves tools as well as organizational processes that clearly define how different parties interact and function with IM. As depicted in Figure 1, without adequately defining processes through National Mine Action Standards (NMAS) and Standard Operating Procedures (SOP), even the most advanced and fit-for-purpose IM tools will lack the foundation to be effective.

Figure 2. Information Management Cycle.
Figure 1. IM hierarchy of needs and GICHD information management support programs.
All graphics courtesy of GICHD.

Carefully integrating IM tools into the processes of an organization becomes increasingly important as more specialized tools become available. Recently, a number of applications were developed in the mine action community, many of them mobile data collection tools that address very specific requirements and needs.1, 2, 3, 4

Mobile Collection Tools

The proliferation of mobile devices is increasing demand for mobile-based data collection solutions that bridge the information gaps in mine action programs. Operators and contractors in the field increasingly rely on mobile solutions to collect data about survey and clearance as well as other related activities.

The availability of easy-to-use software and development frameworks for common mobile platforms such as Android and iOS contributes to the proliferation of such tools. Designing a custom data collection form for a team being deployed to the field and making it available via mobile devices is a task that can be accomplished in a relatively short amount of time. Most tools can work offline and are able to synchronize data once an internet connection is reestablished.

The immediate benefit of using mobile data collection is real-time data sharing and analysis, and real-time tracking of deployed assets. It enables decision makers within mine action organizations to have quick access to information and make evidence-based decisions to implement and steer activities. Automatic georeferencing uses GPS functionalities built into devices and is another frequently mentioned benefit. Additionally, mobile data collection reduces the complexity of reporting by avoiding error-prone, double data entry (e.g., entering data via paper forms as well as manually entering data into a national information management system).

However, this synchronization with a central, national system presents a significant challenge. When different tools are used by various organizations to collect the same type of data, data is both stored in different locations, formats and technologies. In order to make informed decisions on a national level and preserve the data in the longer term, we must combine data into a single location. This requires robust data exchange mechanisms and standards.

National Information Management Systems

As required by the national authority, many programs store country-wide mine action data in the Information Management System for Mine Action (IMSMA). Normally, data is collected by users in the field and sent to the national authority—either as paper reports, or digitally as Excel files or similar formats—and entered manually or imported into the central IMSMA database.

With so many different mobile data collection tools, there is an increased demand for a simple and robust data exchange functionality between said tools and IMSMA. One key element for data exchange is a common, well-documented data format that can be used to transfer data between two systems. For mine action, this requirement is addressed by the Mine Action Extensible Markup Language (maXML), which was originally developed in 2002 by identifying data that members of the mine action community are interested in sharing based on interviews and a review of various mine action information systems, standards and processes. It has been further developed since then by adding vocabulary that reflects the developments of the data that IMSMA contains. The maXML specification expresses these data as easily recognizable terms or words, and presents these terms in a structure that gives context to their meaning and intent. These terms and structure represent the maXML vocabulary. In most cases, the maXML vocabulary adheres to terminology used by the International Mine Action Standards (IMAS).

While the export and import of maXML are implemented within IMSMA, the current IMSMANG only partially addresses wider requirements for a seamless data exchange with third-party applications. In fact, national storage and validation of mine action data is only one step in the information management cycle (depicted in Figure 2) that IMSMANG must support.

Figure 2. Information Management Cycle.
Figure 2. Information Management Cycle.

The identification of information requirements—data collection, analysis and reporting—are addressed equally by the current IMSMANG. As it was originally conceived as a holistic tool, the ability to exchange data easily, while important, was not central to its design. Therefore no Application Programming Interface (API) is available to expose and leverage IMSMA business logic and functionality.

The emerging third-party applications mentioned previously cover specific steps of the information management cycle such as data collection via mobile devices or reporting through the Mine Action Intelligence Tool (MINT).4 By focusing on one specific requirement, applications often outperform the one-size-fits-all IMSMANG, which must meet multiple requirements. Acknowledging these technological trends and new opportunities, GICHD initiated a new development cycle in 2015 focusing on IMSMA’s role of data storage, validation and integration.

Motivation for Change

Regular updates to IMSMA are required in order to keep pace with evolutions in information technology. However, these updates also provide opportunities to rethink macro-level architecture and to take into account lessons learned from previous years, taking advantage of technological developments.

With its adapted strategy and new development cycle, GICHD aims to address evolving and emerging requirements regarding user experience and interoperability with third-party applications. Moreover, GICHD will more efficiently employ off-the-shelf tools for mine action tasks. This will reduce costs and the need for specific technical system support, freeing up both GICHD and field IM resources to provide user-driven information products such as maps, reports and statistics.

In many programs, the core function of IMSMA is a platform to store and validate national data, while other functions such as data collection and analysis can be performed by specialized third-party applications. As a result, the current objective of the strategy is to strengthen this now-called IMSMA Core component and open it up for easy integration with data from a variety of sources. This will be achieved by defining an IMSMA framework including a revised maXML specification and an API allowing for seamless exchange of data and functionalities. In this sense, IMSMA should no longer be understood as a singular tool but as a system: a set of interrelated tools and processes that operate together to provide the sector with sound IM.

In IMSMA’s new strategy, each step in the process can be carried out by a variety of standard or customized tools developed either by GICHD or by third-party developers provided these tools are interoperable, i.e., that they can communicate data between one another in a standardized and reliable manner. Figure 3 illustrates how this strategy supports all stages of the information management cycle. To accomplish this, GICHD will develop and maintain a robust mine action data exchange language—maXML and API—allowing for a standardized exchange of data and functionality between different tools in the system. In this way, GICHD seeks to foster and encourage an ecosystem of user-driven, interoperable, modular tools that can quickly leverage rapid advances in technology and more effectively put IM into the hands of mine action and relevant operational stakeholders.

Figure 3. Vision of a future information management system for mine action.
Figure 3. Vision of a future information management system for mine action.

The key objectives of the new IMSMA development strategy are

Implementation

While the development of IMSMA Core has only just started, the overall framework has taken shape, and tools for the various steps of the IM cycle have matured. Figure 4 specifies the vocabulary used for those applications, depending on their level of engagement with IMSMA.

Figure 4. IMSMA applications.
Figure 4. IMSMA applications.
One example of a recently developed mobile data collection tool falling under the IMSMA applications category is the Mine Action Reporting System (MARS), which comprises three main parts:

After initial configuration via MARS Web, authorized users can collect data in the field using customized data entry forms or forms designed in IMSMA and imported into MARS. The mobile application allows GPS information to be captured as identifying points and polygons with a few finger taps. As soon as the mobile device is connected to the internet, the collected data is synchronized with the MARS Cloud and accessible for approval via the web portal. Finally, data collected via MARS can be imported into the IMSMA data repository and accessed via MINT for advanced data analysis and reporting purposes. As depicted in Figure 5, MARS is an example of an application integrated within the current status of the IMSMA framework and will be adapted as IMSMA Core and its API and data exchange capabilities mature.

Figure 5. Overview of MARS.
Figure 5. Overview of MARS.

Conclusion

The newly adopted IMSMA development strategy (2015–2018) aims at fostering better interoperability between the national storage component, IMSMA Core, and external applications such as mobile data collection. This interoperability will be achieved through an IMSMA framework that defines how various IM systems may interact. This development will take place in parallel to the maintenance and support of the current IMSMANG system that will continue beyond the development timeline of IMSMA Core. c

 

Biography

Elisabeth Vinek Elisabeth Vinek joined the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) in March 2013. As the information management support coordinator she is responsible for coordinating the organizational and technical support provided by the information management division. Prior to joining the GICHD, Vinek worked as a data warehouse developer, project coordinator and consultant. She holds a Master’’s and a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Vienna (Austria).

Sulaiman MukahhalSulaiman Mukahhal joined the GICHD Information Management Division in January 2016 as the information management advisor, with a focus on third party IMSMA application. Prior to joining GICHD, Mukahhal worked with different humanitarian missions focusing on supporting relief and mine action efforts in conflict and post-conflict zones. Mukahhal holds a Bachelor of Science in computer science from Applied Science University (ASU) in Jordan and is a certified project management professional.

Olivier CottrayOlivier Cottray joined the GICHD in January 2012, initially as the division’s information services coordinator. As head of the information management division, he is now in charge of managing the team that provides information management capacity development and technical support to the mine action community. Prior to joining the GICHD, Cottray worked in humanitarian emergencies, running geographic information systems (GIS) support cells in U.N. and NGO field operations. Cottray completed a Bachelor of Science in geography and economics at the London School of Economics (U.K.) in 1998, and received a Master’s in GIS and remote sensing from the University of Cambridge (U.K) in 1999.

 

Contact Information

Elisabeth Vinek
Advisor, Information Management Support Coordinator
Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining
Email: e.vinek@gichd.org
Website: http://www.gichd.org

Sulaiman Mukahhal
Advisor, Information Management
Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining
Email: s.mukahhal@gichd.org
Website: http://www.gichd.org

Olivier Cottray
Head of Information Management
Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining
Tel: +41 22 730 93 43
Email: o.cottray@gichd.org
Website: http://www.gichd.org

 

Endnotes

  1. “TIRAMISU Information Management Tool 8211; T-IMS.” TIRAMISU Information Center (2013). Accessed 27 April 2016. http://bit.ly/1TwBiCo.
  2. Curatella F., Vinetti P., Rizzo G.; Vladimirova T., De Vendictis L., Emter T., Petereit J., Frey C., Usher D., Stanciugelu I., Schaefer J., Den Breejen E., Gisslén L., Letalick D. “Toward a multifaceted platform for Humanitarian Demining.” 12 International Symposium Mine Action 2015. ISSN 1849-3718.
  3. Bold, Mikael. “Information Management and Technology Development for Technical Survey in Mine Action.” EOD and C-IED (2015). Accessed 27 April 2016. http://bit.ly/1TwBOR1.
  4. “Mine Action Intelligence Tool (MINT).” Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (August 2014). Accessed 27 April 2016. http://bit.ly/1YTE1r8.