Taking notes in the field


On fieldwork I like to opt for waterproof notebooks to record measurements. I prefer the flexibility of being able to construct tables as I see fit and I think it leads to less wasted paper than if I used pre-printed data table sheets and a clipboard. Specifically I use Rite in the Rain hardback lined notebooks (No. 390) which I think are a good size and are very robust, it’s just a shame they cost about GBP15 each.

The main issue I have with using notebooks, or rather using paper based note-taking in general is that at the end of the fieldwork there is a lot of copying up the data, days and days and days of it. In some ways this is good as it allows you to get a first look at any errors that might have been made, but at the same time more errors may be introduced through the copying process, which can be extremely mind-numbing.

Additionally, writing freehand in notebooks or onto printed paper forms can be quite messy, especially when it is sweaty or wet in the field.

When I attended a course in plant taxonomy at Kew Gardens last year I got talking to another researcher who worked at Kew and did lots of expeditions collecting plant specimens. They have to collect various information about the location and habit of the plant they are collecting and they had opted to take notes directly onto their Android smartphone using a combination of Locus Maps and ODK (Open Data Kit).

ODK screenshot

Here is a link to an ODK .xml and .xlsx

Another issue that people often state as a reason for not using tablets/smartphones is obviously that they need charging, and what happens if they run out of charge. However, at nearly all the fieldsites I’ve worked at, even pretty remote ones, we’ve had access to a generator which can be used for charging every night. Battery packs can also be brought as a backup for charging in the field or when the generator inevitably breaks, so I don’t see this as a real problem. Additionally, it is important to make sure that the device is waterproof, otherwise you have to stop work when it rains. This can be achieved with various phone cases, but I’m skeptical of phone cases in general, as so many of them are of such atrocious build quality.