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The National Trust is a charity and membership organisation specialising in heritage conservation in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The organisation works throughout the UK to conserve sites of both natural and historical significance.

Use this Guide if you want to find out about a way to collect data specific to locations. You can then upload it, display it on maps and analyse it later. Great for reducing paper use in fieldwork settings - for example, monitoring trees.

Steps to using a digital GIS tool to map field research

This Guide works for recording inspection or checking data at specific locations using a GIS (graphical information system). You should ask yourself:

  • What location related data do you need to gather? Check your current system - are you going to collect new instances of the same information or update existing data?

  • Does it relate to a specific location that is best described by GIS such as individual trees. For example, if postcode is accurate enough for your purposes, that is less specific than GIS information and this Guide won't be so relevant.

  • Is it easy for people to get online at the locations they are recording the data?

  • Are there lots of people recording the data or only a few?

  • How is the data going to be used? Who needs to view it later?

The National Trust has a duty of care to protect heritage and natural landscapes. They need to inspect and monitor tree safety across over 250,000 hectares of land they own.

Rangers need to check trees at specific locations and record any defects. They do this in writing and with pictures. They also log remedial actions that should be taken. Many rangers could be adding the data at different times. Over 80% of the trees are in locations with no WiFi.

Managers need to be able to review the data and assign priority order to actions. They also want to be able to produce reports that show how they are meeting their duty of care.

You need to find a GIS tool that meets your needs.

You’ll want to check:

  • What kind of input forms it offers and how easy are they to use.

  • What can people upload - does it include images or video if needed?

  • How many people can use it at once?

  • Can it save data locally, and upload it later when someone has an internet connection?

  • How does it display data? How easy is it to go from map view to dashboards of information?

Screenshot from a phone. The top half is the image of a tree. The bottom half has buttons and data entry fields The National Trust ArcGIS mobile app

The National Trust chose Esri’s ArcGIS Online.

This tool is designed for creating interactive data maps. These encourage users to explore data about specific GIS locations. It works for the National Trust’s inspection system because:

  • It has a mobile app with field-map functionality

  • It works well offline, smoothly uploading data later

  • The app connects in to the main ArcGIS Online system which has options for dashboards to display information needed

  • It allows photo uploading

  • Creating the forms for rangers to upload data was quick and simple

  • Many people can upload things at the same time with no complications

Prototyping before launching your GIS software will help you make it work in a way that

  • collects the information you actually need
  • makes it easy for people to use to collect that information

Can you ask for fewer pieces of information?

It’s also useful to think about your management information and dashboards

What pieces of information do the managers use regularly and what do they need only once a quarter or once a year? What options does the dashboard have that can help this?

A desktop screenshot. The left third is a column of information fields. The right is a map with a location pinpointed. A view from the VertiGIS dashboard

The National Trust reviewed the data they were collecting and set up simple prototype forms in ArcGIS mobile apps. Then they tested the and refined the forms.

Their GIS Development team configured browser application VertiGIS to present the data stored in ArcGIS Online. This dashboard provides staff and volunteers with the a view of the data and an overview of the regional tree safety situation.

Managers can then assign priority to tasks, monitor progress and see defects remedied. 

This is a great way to approach any new digital tool. Find people who are excited to try it and let them use it first while everyone else sticks to the old system.

Listen to how they experience the prototype and make improvements before you implement it more widely.

two people in red shirts face away from the camera. One of them points their phone at a tree in front of them. Digital champions in action

The National Trust found a small group of champions and involved them in all of the prototyping and testing process. 

Later on these champions supported a “train the trainer” approach when they implemented ArcGIS more widely. The champions introduced the app to other field workers. This helped everyone feel involved and buy in to using ArcGIS.

During this phase you should:

  • Offer different types of training including: videos, instruction manuals and face to face

  • Encourage your team to promote the app if they enjoy using it

  • Try not to introduce any changes during this phase - so that people are not overwhelmed or confused

  • Provide a clear way for people to feedback

  • Act on the feedback you receive

The National Trust ran their informal roll out for 18 months. At the end of this they gathered feedback via survey from a high percentage of their team. They made small changes and updated some of their training. 

They also found that they had to encourage some behaviours to make the app more useful

  • They needed to remind people to go online and upload data frequently. People who did lots of logging and tried to upload it all at once found the system to be slow.
  • They needed to explain that they only needed pictures of defects, not of healthy trees. Some people had been taking unnecessary pictures.

They also accepted that a small number of fieldworkers wanted to continue to use paper.

Further information

  • Learn about how other charities are using geospatial data. Read the Catalyst Resource.
  • Find out more about working with digital champions as The National Trust did here. Catalyst report on projects from Digital Unite and Mencap.

For more on this guide: