Disclaimer: I wrote this post with other aspiring biologists in mind, those who might want to conduct similar fieldwork to my own. I am not endorsing any particular brand or product. I imagine similar products to the ones I discuss below will work just as well!
Months and months ago, as I was writing my research project proposal, I found myself almost overwhelmed with decisions to make about what equipment to use to collect my data. Every researcher faces this problem, but there exists very little or difficult to find information about equipment and gear designed for field biologists in mind. Partly, I believe this dearth of discussion is due to the fact that each research project is so unique that generalities are impossible. However, I would like to share some information about my own equipment set-up, in the hopes that it saves a future PhD student sleepless nights and needless anxiety.
Apple Ipads Mini, 16 GB
Purpose: My team and I collect data on Apple Ipads. I chose Ipads over other tablets or palm pilots for their compatibility with my Mac, versatility, battery life, and large screen.
Pro: Easy to learn and navigate
Con: May be more expensive than other options. Also, Ipad does not support multiple user accounts, so my Ipads have been stripped of all applications except those needed for research purposes. In other words, I cannot use my Ipads in the evenings for personal use, unless I want to run the risk of having my research team read my Kindle books in the field! Of course, Ipads are not water- or ding-proof, so I keep the Ipads in hard shell case and a bag-style protector that hangs around the neck.
Microsoft Office for Ipad/Iphone
Purpose: I use Excel on Ipads to enter data. There are many, many, many data collection applications out there (see http://brunalab.org/apps/ for a great list) and expensive programs designed for research collection (e.g. Observer by Noldus). However, the data I collect is simple enough that Excel can handle it.
Pro: A cost effective method. A student subscription to Microsoft Office for Apple devices is $99 for up to 5 devices for a year each. Also, most people are already familiar with Excel and can easily navigate through the mobile version. I can also reduce entry error by restricting cell contents to a list of approved terms (refer to Data Validation|“lists” in Excel help).
Con: Excel does NOT have a static timestamp function (!!!!!!) and Excel for Ipads does not support macros. Static timestamps are essential to my data collection (I need to record the exact hour:minute:second that a behavior is entered into a cell, but =NOW is not static when dragged and copied for an entire column). Instead, I’ve macgyver’ed a very clumsy work-around. A static timestamp can be created using a circular formula of an if-then function nested within another if-then function. Iterative calculations must also be enabled (Excel à Tools|options|calculation and check the iterations checkbox). If your data cell is A1 and you want a static time stamp in B1, use this formula in B1:
However, this formula is a bit delicate and if you accidentally select B1 after it has the timestamp, it runs the risk of being erased and reset to 00:00:00. All things considered, this method is a nice balance between cost and performance.
Jockery external battery
Purpose: I’m in the field for 12+ hours at a time and unfortunately Apple Ipad minis on flight mode have a battery life of ~10 hours. I use these compact little external batteries to keep my devices running all day long!
Pro: Fairly inexpensive
Con: None really, they work great!
Garmin GPS units
Purpose: I use GPS units to record movement location of my subjects throughout the day.
Pro: Designed for heavy field use, they have held up great in the forest and seem to pick up strong satellite signal (< +/- 5 m error), despite being in the middle of a dense rainforest.
Con: None that I can detect so far! An integrated GPS application on my Ipads would be even better than these handheld units, but I have yet to find an app that does what I need and can run offline.
Nikon Prostaff 5, 8×42 magnification
Purpose: Blue monkeys are often 30+ meters high up in the canopy in poor lighting conditions and we have to count how many leaves they consume! Binoculars are an absolute must! Add a binocular harness to take the weight off your neck and you’re golden!
Pro: I managed to find these binoculars on sale for ~$130.00, which is a great deal for the quality product you get. Water and dust resistant, these binoculars serve our purpose quite well for the price.
Con: The Nikon Prostaff 5 does not have attachable eye-cup covers, so I’ve had to rig up a solution consisting of duct tape, zip ties, key rings, and epoxy. Still, we’ve already lost a couple of covers in the forest and now the binocular lenses are exposed to the dust and rain. Also, the rubber rings that encase the eye-cups are not well attached to the eye cups, so they’ve been slipping off as well. As a result, the eye-cups are then bare metal that can be a little uncomfortable to hold against your eye for hours in a day. I personally use a Nikon Prostaff 7, which is substantially more expensive, but the optics are better and I’ve also discovered that my pair hold up better under the stress of being banged around the forest all day long (no lost eye-cup covers or rings).