Field Work: Software for Handhelds Tackles the Tough Stuff

Linda L. Briggs

Working with farmers in the fields of Idaho is about as non-traditional as college teaching gets. It’s the kind of job that calls for non-traditional tools — ones that can work well both inside a classroom and outside in the field.

Associate Professor Jason Ellsworth teaches at the University of Idaho’s Research and Extension Center in Twin Falls, Idaho, about precision agriculture concepts developed at the university. His students are mostly farmers from the extensive farms throughout the central part of Idaho. They represent both small farms and large-scale commercial growers. For Ellsworth, handheld PDAs are an essential tool for note-taking in the field and for use later in the classroom.

Students and instructors across many disciplines find wireless handheld computers to be useful outdoor educational devices because they can be used not only for notes, but also for audio recording, sketching, and even photography. If GPS capabilities are added via hardware (or some higher-end models come with GPS built in), they can be used to determine locations for mapping as well.

But note-taking can be tough at times. Making quick notes or entering data often involves writing on a limited portion of the screen with a stylus, or tapping out letters on an on-screen display or tiny attached keyboard. For many users, basic software like Microsoft Transcriber, a handwriting recognition program that ships with Windows-based PDAs, can quickly be pushed beyond basic functionality.

Enter CalliGrapher, a sophisticated handwriting recognition product for PDAs developed by PhatWare. The software works on any Windows Mobile-based device, including the iPAQ Pocket PC line from HP, and the Palm Treo 700w Smartphone. Ellsworth currently uses a Dell Axim, which uses Windows CE as its operating system. However, he has also had success with earlier PDAs from HP and Toshiba.

In his field work at the university, Ellsworth has found the note-taking capabilities of CalliGrapher particularly useful for entering research data and notes while outdoors. As a function of his job, Ellsworth spends plenty of time literally in the field, conducting research, testing, and working with students. He, along with some of his students, use handheld PDAs and CalliGrapher to take notes and enter research data.

The student-farmers he works with range in age from 20 to 65 or more. As mandated by the state in establishing the university (a land-grant institution based in Moscow, Idaho), Ellsworth helps students implement new farming ideas and technologies developed by the institution.

“I use a lot of the data in the field, collected on my handheld. I have a GPS connected to it, so I can tie [the information] to a specific place in the field,” Ellsworth says. He also collects information on soil specifics, contours and dimensions of the land, results from differences in fertilizer treatments, and much more.

The handwritten data he enters is converted to text by CalliGrapher on the spot. Ellsworth can then share that converted text as notes in his classroom.

When he teaches seminars, which are usually off-site from the university, Ellsworth uses the PDA’s wireless Bluetooth connection to upload information from his handheld to a notebook computer. He can then access the data he hand-entered in the field. For example, when he’s in class displaying an Excel spreadsheet of data he entered in the field, the numbers are digital text, but were originally hand-entered with CalliGrapher.

Using additional software called Pocket Controller by Soti Inc., Ellsworth can also show growers how to use certain software on their handhelds. “When we’re showing growers how to use specific applications on their handheld, I’ll connect it to the computer so they can see what I’m doing,” he says. To do that, Ellsworth connects the handheld to a computer with a larger screen, using Pocket Controller to illustrate what’s displayed on the handheld.

Students run the gamut in terms of technical expertise, Ellsworth says. While younger farmers in general are more comfortable with technology, including handhelds, some older farmers are bucking convention and using computers to help them run their businesses. “A lot of [farmers] use computers to get current prices for commodities,” Ellsworth says.

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