Thursday, May 24, 2012

Data Access on International Field Trips

On field trips abroad the expense of using a smartphone or tablet -- if you need real-time access to on-line data -- is generally a major concern. Most providers' international data plans are very expensive, particularly given the image-intensive nature of the data geologists like to access in the field.  If you are lucky enough to have an unlocked mobile device, then you can try to find a local data plan in your destination country; however, such plans are generally only slightly less expensive. Cost can be an especially big concern if you are expecting students to use personal devices for field trip activities.

One solution is to rely on apps that work off-line, using pre-loaded data sets, such as Geometry's iGIS app for iOS (more on that approach in an upcoming post.) Another solution is to obtain a mobile WiFi hotspot from one of the newly emerging, reasonably cost-effective providers of unlimited international cellular data services. For our upcoming Spain geology field trip we are looking at XCom Global's Mobile Hotspot with Unlimited aXcess plan as a possible solution. It will enable us to provide both instructors and students with data access during our thirteen-day excursion without breaking our budget.

Most importantly, network access will allow us to use apps that need to connect to remote data sources to function completely, and which provide capabilities not available in off-line apps.  It will also give us an easy way to access all the information we didn't think to bring along, and access in general for all our needs in today's Internet-connected world.

[From the Xcom Global website.]
A mobile WiFi hotspot provides connectivity for multiple devices, though keep in mind all those devices will be sharing the same bandwidth through the hotspot to the Internet. If you need to support simultaneous access to the Internet for a lot of devices, such as everyone hitting a map server as they hop out at a stop, then you probably want to bring along more than one hotspot. Also, based on experience with similar hardware on field trips within the United States, you should only expect each hotspot to provide service to the vehicle it is in; multiple vehicles means multiple hotspots.

On our upcoming Spain geology field trip, we are thinking about bringing along two hotspots, with the plan to restrict one to instructor-only access, if bandwidth becomes an issue. It will be interesting to see what the responsiveness is like using on-line oriented apps, like ESRI's ArcGIS app, and if we do indeed run into bandwidth constraints. If students spend too much time waiting to zoom or pan, for pop-up info to be retrieved, or for web pages to load, then we will need to consider carefully the situations where such delays out-weigh the wait-time in terms of educational benefits.

For instance, discussions while travelling are typically more amenable to such technological intrusiveness than when you're at a stop.  You generally have more time while travelling to wait for something to load and can be more tolerant of delays, than when you are spending precious time at a stop[.  When you are in front of the outcrop the technology needs to fade into the background just like any other tool (rock hammer, compass, map sheets, acid bottle, camera, etc.) that supports the learning experience. Do keep in mind, however, that in almost any group you are likely to have at least a few people susceptible to motion-sickness, so plan any in-vehicle activities accordingly.  (And, no, I don't mean grab a bunch of air sickness bags from your flight to the field area; I mean ensure that there are alternative ways to engage in discussions or lessons for those that cannot comfortably read papers or access their devices while moving!)
Xcom Global provides a Novatel Mifi 2372 mobile hotspot, charger, and accessories for $14.95/day for use in most countries.  On top of that you may want insurance, another $3.95/day; not a bad idea when using it in a vehicle or in the field. If you are going to be spending extended periods away from a power source, you may also want additional batteries ($2.49 each/day); battery life is advertised as four hours.  (Note that only a wall charger is included; for use in a vehicle, you need to supply your own cigarette lighter adapter that can be used with the hotspot's USB cable.) If you place your order at least ten days prior to your departure, then shipping is free, otherwise it is an additional $29.90. So for our trip we are looking at a cost per hotspot of $21.39/day, or $278.07 for the duration of our trip.  See the XCom Global website for more information, including additional costs if you happen to be travelling to more than one country on your trip.

Another concern to keep in mind -- and just as true for field trips in the United States -- is to verify that cellular service exists where you need it. Geologically interesting routes and stops often take you to areas with no cellular service. So be sure to check the coverage before you invest in this solution!

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