One of the first things Roberty P. Murphy, President of a transportation engineering firm in Nashville, Tenn., did when his company won a contract to rapidly inspect that city’s 800 miles of sidewalks, was to seek ways to limit the number of inspectors needed to meet the deadline and to control the information flow.

(Photo courtesy of RPM Associates)

"It was going to be a pretty daunting task, documenting the inventory," Murphy says. His $500,000 contract is to develop a sidewalk and bikeway plan and an inventory to help Nashville abide by an agreement with the federal Dept. of Justice to correct widespread sidewalk faults that violate the Americans with Disabilities Act. The city has budgeted $35 million for sidewalk construction.

Murphy turned to Don Tolley, a civil engineer and software developer who was developing a data collection product called GeoScout. Tolley’s Blue Ash, Ohio-based company, Digi Design, sold Murphy's RPM & Associates a customized version of the system before it was even ready for its December 2001 release. "They really gave us some great feedback on the product," Tolley says.

The system uses standard geographic information system (GIS) data formats. Data can be downloaded to multiple hand-held devices and synchronized to an office GIS system daily. Tolley says his goal had been to make a customizable system whose field use required minimal training. Murphy says he succeeded."The ease of operation is a plus. We can get people out on the street fairly quickly after going through some basic training," Murphy says.

One professional in the office supervises eight young data collectors–half as many as Murphy originally thought he would need. They fan out each day with measuring tapes, measuring wheels, digital levels and iPaq hand-held computers. The computers were bought by the city, and will be turned over to it, along with the software and database, as deliverables at the end of the project.

"Giving Nashville a tool it can use in the future was a big part of getting us the contract," Murphy says.

Although the software can integrate with a global positioning system for finding locations, Murphy says that level of detail was more than they needed. Collectors record findings by block and segment. "Where it really becomes complete is in the GIS program. The capability of querying that data for any segment is powerful," Murphy says. "There is no question that it beats a paper method. It’s just working like a champ."