Interactive Pen Technology Delivers a Host of Advantages to GIS and Design Workflows

By Mike Dana

The advantages of an interactive digital workflow for GIS mapping are attracting new users in applications as diverse as emergency response, agriculture, volcanic analysis and water resource management. Some of these users have, until recently, relied on paper maps, while others are upgrading their existing digital workflows with more sophisticated systems such as interactive pen technology. A number of factors are driving this workflow shift, including a desire for greater speed and accuracy, easier editing, more flexibility and collaborative features.

Combining an LCD monitor with precise pen input, the "interactive pen display" is one of the most significant technological tools introduced to GIS and A/E/C professionals in recent years. With GIS mapping applications readily available the workflow integration of this new technology is seamless. Projects are completed faster and with greater accuracy, while offering instant access to updated spatial data and red-line corrections across the enterprise for easy collaboration.

The Marin Municipal Water District Seeks to Eliminates Paper
The Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) in Marin County, California upgraded its digital capacity in summer 2009 with the goal of completely eliminating paper from its workflow. MMWD constantly updates its GIS data to reflect field operations, which has caused a steady rise in paper usage and data management risk, as well as systemic inefficiencies.

Traditionally, MMWD engineers would return from the field, grab a 2x3-ft. paper map and red-line changes with a colored pencil. Then, another person would update the GIS information using Esri's ArcGIS and reprint the sheet. With 400 maps gridding the district's system, the process wasted paper, ink and plotting time. "With paper, the red-lines kept building up, and we would sometimes have as much as six months of red-lining on a single paper map without ever having that applied to GIS," said Gavin McGhie, GIS coordinator at MMWD. "When that happens, people who depend on GIS aren't seeing the most current data, which leads not only to frustration, but to potential errors caused by staff relying on outdated information."
MMWD field engineers use Wacom interactive pen displays to directly redline on digital maps. (Click for larger view.)

The solution was to integrate interactive pen technology into the overall data update and maintenance workflow. This allowed field engineers to draw their changes directly onto a screen displaying a consolidated map. Updated maps, GIS and engineering data became available across the enterprise the next day, following administrator review, which eliminated delays for printing new paper maps.

"By allowing workers to red-line directly on the computer screen, we automatically eliminate paper from the GIS process and improve efficiency and accuracy throughout the entire system. This significantly reduces the cost of the overall process as well," continued McGhie.

The Idaho Department of Water Resources Builds a Map
The Idaho Department of Water Resources (IDWR) experienced a different sort of workflow inefficiency. With inadequate water supplies plaguing the region, IDWR needed a precise statewide geodatabase of irrigated and non-irrigated areas. This project was essential for developing more efficient water management strategies, allocating water for multiple public and private stakeholders, and providing authoritative data for legal challenges. Using a traditional mouse input for heads-up digitizing provided results that were neither fast nor accurate enough for a mapping project of this complexity and urgency.
Using a Wacom interactive pen display to outline boundaries of irrigated lands directly on-screen, IDWR GIS Analyst Margie Wilkins experienced 25 percent acceleration in overall workflow, when compared to traditional mouse input. (Click for larger view.)

IDWR GIS analyst Margie Wilkins integrated an interactive pen solution into her digital workflow. In so doing, she eliminated the mouse, which required tediously clicking at numerous points to define map boundaries. This solution allowed her to make geospatial database updates utilizing smooth and natural movements to draw exact boundary edges on the LCD surface. This intuitive workflow was invaluable in working with high-resolution National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP) imagery. Wilkins was then able to map irrigated lands precisely down to individual fields and boundaries, feeding these data into a model developed by IDWR to evaluate the amount of water lost to evapotranspiration - water that evaporates from soil and transpires from plants.

Drawing directly on screen to outline boundaries of irrigated lands greatly accelerated the process of digitizing vector polygonal data for IDWR. When combined with software applications such as ArcGIS, the pen input is even faster and more intuitive compared with alternative input devices. Wilkins estimated the interactive pen display technology has accelerated her workflow by 25 percent.

"I am able to move easily around the screen at varying zoom levels while delineating hundreds of features identified on our imagery," she said. "This includes building data that range from large center-pivot irrigation circles to roads, homesteads and small pastures. You simply can't replicate the precision of an interactive pen with a mouse."

By taking a proactive approach, instead of merely emphasizing conservation, IDWR has become a leader in 21st century water management techniques. While conservation remains essential, IDWR's mapping project provides a precise picture of how water is used. Non-authorized irrigation projects and wasteful use can be eliminated, enabling precious supplies to be directed where they are most needed.

Both MMWD and IDWR found higher accuracy and enhanced efficiency through the use of interactive pen displays developed by Wacom Technology. The company's user-friendly interactive pen technology makes it possible to incorporate details that were previously too labor-intensive to be practical. When combined with ArcGIS, the ease of maintaining a common geodatabase enables managers and staff to collaborate and respond to changing conditions in a timely manner.

Similar stories can be told by GIS, A/E/C and design professionals in hundreds of other examples from the field, as direct pen-on-screen input elevates how they are able to create and interact with digital data. Planners, geophysicists, landscape designers, architects and civil engineers are gaining new insight into local and global geographic conditions and making management decisions that will positively impact people's lives. It is the beginning of an exciting new era for GIS mapping and data manipulation as geographic analysis can be integrated into design processes. Interactive pen input is an enabling technology for this new era, providing unprecedented geographic insight and enhanced workflow collaboration, resulting in better understanding and management of the physical world.

Published Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

Written by Mike Dana

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