Neatness Counts

Earlier we discussed the use of field notebooks and the lost art of field note taking.  I fear that neat, disciplined and structured field note taking is a lost art in the today’s world of texting, instant messaging, and email.  Even in the engineering, surveying and topographic field (where I work) the use of field notebooks appears to have been brushed aside by smartphones, laptop computers, data collectors and the assorted electronic bric-a-brac that has come to dominate the field.  And yet – and yet – all this powerful technology still leaves us with critical information gaps.  The problem is not so much that people aren’t writing stuff down, it is that they are writing it down in formats that are so very disjointed, disconnected and perishable.  An email here, a quick scribble on a random notepad there.  It gets lost or never gets integrated into the project file.  Months or years down the line engineers and maintenance personnel are left to wonder just where something was placed or how it was constructed because the story of that project was not properly documented.

Now, I’m not implying that the use of field notebooks will solve all of these problems.  Field notebooks are not a panacea for lousy project management.  My point is really that disciplined and structured note taking should be viewed as a key skill – and a requirement – for surveyors, engineers, topographers and other key staff.  Of course the ideal place to write all this down is in a field notebook, a field notebook that gets turned over to the organization, copied, indexed and integrated into a document management system at the completion of the project.

Neat, disciplined, complete and structured note taking.  Just what does that mean?

The disciplined and complete parts are easy.  Notes need to be made on any issue, topic, observation or discussion that directly impacts a project.  It is really nothing more than getting in the habit.  Get in the habit of having your notebook with you and writing stuff down.  Complete means get it all down.  Think of each record you create in the notebook as a miniature story – it needs to have a beginning, a middle and and end.  What you observed, when and where you observed it, what was important about it, who was there, what was agreed to, what conclusions were reached and, if necessary, sketches or diagrams that are key to the issue at hand.  Make it a complete story!

Neat and structured are two somewhat subjective concepts.  Everyone has their own style of organization and handwriting.  The important thing is to make it neat, legible and logical in structure.  Always remember that the intent is to make it easy for you and others in your organization to reference in the future.  How far into the future?  I routinely reference survey records for the airport I work at that are 60+ years old.  The neatness and structure (and completeness) of those records allow me to rely on them for locating structures and utilities that were abandoned and forgotten about decades ago.

I can only offer suggestions for the concepts of neatness and structure.  As I mentioned in my earlier post, field note taking used to be a topic taught in all beginning surveying and civil engineering courses.  Colleges, universities, government agencies (like the USGS and the USC&GS) and even individual companies used to have their own field note format requirements.  Some agencies, like the US Army Corps of Engineers, would even have entire bound books printed with pre-formatted pages.

A few agencies still provide specific field note standards.  Surprisingly, most are state departments of transportation (DOT).  For example, the Oregon DOT, provides specific guidance for field note structure.  Their Survey Field Note Standards (October 2006) provides very specific field note examples.  The same for the Montana DOT.  Their Survey Manual provides a chapter on sample notes that contractors are expected to follow.

But since this is my blog and I love old stuff, particularly old stuff that still has relevance, we’re going to take a trip back to the 1950s.  A time when cars had carburetors, space travel was the stuff of science fiction and real men did surveys with optical theodolites and steel measuring tapes, and wrote everything down in hard bound notebooks.  A couple of professors at the University of Missouri put together a course in introductory surveying and field measuring.  A large part of the class involved proper field note recording.  This course was to serve as the foundation for all surveying and civil engineering instruction to come, so the instructors needed to make sure the students got started on the right foot with disciplined, accurate, structured and comprehensive field data recording.  The two professors, Clarence Bardsley and Ernest Carlton put together a gem of a book titled ‘Surveyors Field Note Forms’.

Bardsley & Carlton, Surveyor’s Field
Note Forms (3rd Ed.)

The book opens with a treatise on the importance of field notes and the necessity of being an accurate, error free, neat and complete note taker.

“Allow no items for the memory; all facts should be on the record.”

“A good surveyor takes pride in the appearance of his notes.  A neat-appearing, well arranged set of field notes commands confidence and builds prestige in the surveyor.”

“Field notes should be clear and convey only one possibly correct interpretation.  Descriptions and narrative matter should be in acceptable English.  Sketches should be drawn to approximate, or convenient, scales.  All numerals indicating distances, angles, or elevation should be carefully formed.  Particular care should be exercised in obtaining a logical order and sequence of all notes, for they should be absolutely clear and understandable to the student, other surveyors, computers*, or draftsmen.”

The book then goes on to provide specific examples of problems and how the field notes should be formatted (click on any image to open it full-size):

Length of Pace Measurement

It was once common practice for surveyors to regularly measure and record their pace count over various types of terrain (flat, hilly, uphill, downhill, etc.).  Before accurate handheld measurement devices like GPS surveyors used pace count to do help them with tasks like finding property corner stakes or do rough fence line measurements.

Correcting for Horizontal Slope

Don’t you just love the name ‘Trachoma Hospital?

Using Rough Triangulation to Determine Distance

Although the equipment has improved, surveyors and engineers still use the principal of triangulation to determine inaccessible distances.

Sewer Stake-out

Construction stake-out, whether for sewers, buildings or roads, is still bread-and-butter work for surveyors.

Use of the Grade Rod

Field notes are for more than writing down numbers.  Often the engineer or surveyor needs to write down a description of how a particular piece of equipment was used, or a methodology that might need clarification.

Height of Object

Again, the equipment may have changed, but the procedure is still the same.

Determining Azimuth From True North

Using solar or star shots is still an accepted practice for determining the relationship to true north.

The point of the above is not really what is on the page as much as it is the legibility, accuracy and completeness of the data.  One hundred years from now, when Microsoft .pst files are lost to eternity, digital CAD files can’t be opened and survey data collector files are corrupted beyond recall someone will still be able to pull a notebook like this one off the shelf, open it and clearly understand what the author wrote and was trying to convey.

Neatness does count.

As I was wrapping up this blog posting I asked Roberta (5th Grade Teacher of the Millennium) if kids in grade school still get penmanship lessons.  I was disappointed but not surprised to hear that, in her school system at least, penmanship has been sacrificed on the altar of computer skills.  Apparently the school system feels that there is not enough time to teach and practice penmanship, and since kid are all wired up to computers these days the time ‘wasted’ on penmanship is better put to teaching computer and ‘keyboarding’ skills.  How sad…

– Brian

(*Note – In the 1950s the term ‘computer’ meant something completely different.  Back then a ‘computer’ was an individual who was responsible for doing final computations against the surveyor’s field notes and applying statistical methods to determine the accuracy of the survey results.)

Field Notebooks

Does anyone use field notebooks anymore?

In the olden days (like, up until the 1980s) field notebooks were a staple of the surveying, engineering, geology and natural sciences disciplines.  If you did any field work it got recorded for posterity in a field notebook.  Taking and maintaining field notes was not just an art, it was often a legal requirement, particularly in the surveying field; the entries that surveyors made in their field notebooks constituted the legal record of a survey and those notebooks often were turned in at the completion of a project to become part of the permanent record.

Field note taking and recording was usually part of the early coursework for beginning engineering & surveying students, and you were graded on the completeness, legibility and accuracy of your note taking.  Pencil only!  Erasures not allowed!  Mistakes had to be lined through and corrected notations added.  Our geology field classes stressed accurate structural and stratigraphic mapping along with proper representations of rock types and strike and dip measurements.  It was common during field classes for our professors to pull out an old weatherbeaten field notebook and refer to notes they had taken years before on the rock formations we were studying.

Virtually all of the big name engineering and survey supply companies sold field notebooks.  They were all pretty much the same – a hard bound book filled with blank lined pages (or alternating lined and graph) about 5″ x 7″.  The paper was 50% cotton rag content and usually treated to ensure archival stability and prevent wrinkling  from high humidity.  Most books included tables of conversion formulas, trig functions, curve tables, etc. in the last few tables; things now easily handled by a simple scientific calculator.  My suspicion is that there were only a few companies that actually produced these books and just did job orders for the big manufacturers.  There was a slight difference in quality from manufacturer to manufacturer, and the K & E and Post field books I’ve got in my collection are clearly a step above the average field book with sturdier covers and radiused page corners.

The US Army even got in on the act, and produced two styles of field books they classified as ‘forms’  One, the DA Form 4446 – Level, Transit and General Survey Record Book was laid out like a generic notebook.  The other, DA Form 4196 – Horizontal Distance Book, was laid out specifically for recording traverses.  Both included a handy tear-out address label so that if found all someone had to do was tape the label to the outside of the book and drop it in a mailbox and the Army would pay the postage to get it back to its owner.  To this day I kick myself for not picking up more of these manuals when our Army surveyors abandoned them in favor of pre-printed recording forms.  They had boxes of them laying around new in the shrink wrap and I’m sure most went into the dumpster when they got tired of looking at them.

Thankfully, field notebooks are still available from engineering and forestry supply houses. Still in the same format and the same construction.  I guess when you hit on a winning formula there’s no need to change.

But like so much in life, electronics got in the way.  With the arrival of total survey stations (theodolites), GPS-linked data collectors and computers running surveying and engineering-specific software the need for writing down project notes in a field notebook quickly disappeared.  While surveyors still use field notebooks to record things like the height of instrument or the serial number of the GPS receiver they are using on a particular project, the field notebook is no longer considered an indispensable item.

For much of my Army career I used field notebooks extensively, a practice carried over from my geology fieldwork days.  I was a sloppy note taker (see above), but I managed to get stuff into a logical and readable format.  Over the years I filled about half a dozen field notebooks with data collected on various projects in different parts of the world.  As I neared retirement I got caught up in the digital craze and abandoned notebooks for whatever was hot at that moment.  I’ve owned or used Pocket PCs, BlackBerrys, smart phones, iPhones, laptops, digital notebooks, you name it.  I’ve stored my notes in Borland Sidekick (anyone remember that piece of malware?), Windows Notes, Lotus Notes, Outlook, Outlook Express, iPhone Notes, MS Word, Wordstar, PC-Write, Open Office, and Google Docs.  Guess what?  Just about everything I stored in digital format is gone, gone, gone – unless I made a paper copy as back-up.  Roughly 10 years of meeting notes, field notes, observations, discussions, instructions from supervisors and directions to subordinates, everything gone.  Not because of some catastrophic event, but lost simply to the march of time, the changes in technology and the inevitable degrading of the storage media.

How many of you still have 5 1/4″ or 3 1/2″ floppies sitting around you can no longer read simply because you don’t have a device capable of reading them?  Can your new DVD drive read that CD you burned back in 1999?  Ever wonder why TV shows shot in the 1970s and 80s look so funky?  It’s not because of the bad hairdos or polyester leisure suits, but because so many of them were shot on videotape and the tape is starting to deteriorate.

Today the only way I can resurrect the record of my military career is through the written word put down on paper.  Thankfully I saved just about everything. I can’t tell you the meetings I had in 2005, but I can tell you in some fair detail about the meetings I attended in 1985. In 2005 I trusted digital technology to store my data. In 1985 I trusted a notebook and a pencil.

About a year ago I realized I was missing key notes on some fairly heated meetings we had held with one of our business units at work.  I knew I had probably written my meeting notes and observations in a series of emails to my boss, but for the life of me I couldn’t find the emails.  After about two days of searching on my computer and on our shared drives I remembered that I had done an email backup and clean-out about six months earlier and that my backed up files were on a USB drive – a drive I knew I had misplaced a few weeks before!  At that point I resolved to start writing things down and decided to start using field notebooks again.

As I’ve gotten back into the process of writing things down archivally I’ve been surprised at how my seemingly random scribblings begin to come together to tell the tale of the projects, events or items of interest that impact my life.  I can flip through the pages of my notebook and clearly view the progress of projects and issues I’m tracking.  I can go back to meetings held months ago to remind myself precisely what was said and agreed to. When an engineer has a question about the invert of a pipe we measured three months ago I can show him my original field notes. Sure, all of this information can be stored digitally (and most of it is), but my experience shows that I can’t put much stock in that digital data being available five years from now. In five years I’m pretty sure my notebook will be sitting on my shelf ready to be opened and referenced.

If it’s important, write it down on paper!