Modernizing Data Collection in the Digital Age
PAPER, CAMERAS, TAPE MEASURES - DATA COLLECTION TODAY
Property data is core to tax assessing and onsite property inspections are main way most assessors get their data. However, in an age where a cellphone has more computing power than all of NASA did back in 1969, assessors still use paper, cameras, and tape measures to do their job. The result – data collection is needlessly complicated and expensive. When a single activity takes up as much as 70% of your budget and your budget is getting tighter, doesn’t it make sense to approach the task differently so that you don’t spend as much time and money on the task?
“MODERN" DATA COLLECTION
The standard tools for modern data collection are:
- a stack of paper property cards,
- a camera,
- a paper record sheet to match photos to the right property,
- and a tape measure.
To collect data in the field, assessors and field staff print reams of paper, carry these reams into the field, update their property cards with pencil marks, snap pictures (and record the picture ids on another sheet of paper), and measure buildings with their tape measure.
It’s not a bad method – paper property cards show a lot of information in one place and most data collectors get fast at updating the card in the field. But when they get back, they’ve got to transfer the data from the card manually to the CAMA record. They’ve got to get the photos off of the camera, look up each photo on their log, and then make sure to upload the photo to the correct record. They have to keep track of hundreds or thousands of pages of property cards. When they’re done, the changes they made to the card disappear when the paper is recycled.
CURRENT TABLE SOLUTIONS
Most assessors still depend on paper and pencil because the tablet solutions offered by CAMA companies aren’t built for the field. A brief story succinctly illustrates this point.
Not too long ago we met with a county in Colorado who had recently bought a new CAMA system from a major, national CAMA vendor. The vendor had promised that their tablet technology would be all the county needed to collect data in the field. This wasn’t the case.
Most assessors still depend on paper and pencil because the tablet solutions offered by CAMA companies aren't built for the field.
The application was built for a desktop computer and didn’t change screen resolution, so the data collector had to look at a screen with font that was 4 pt (to get a sense of the experience, take your laptop or tablet outside in full sunlight, shrink the screen font as small as you can, and try to read your screen). When a property record was pulled up, the data collector had to try and use a stylus to navigate a screen that was meant for a mouse. The wrong tabs were often accessed, the wrong data reviewed. Most egregiously, to get to the needed data for a property inspection, the data collector had to spend as much as 10 minutes navigating screens. The solution was neither faster nor easier to use.
To make a "field" application, most CAMA providers simply place their normal application interface on a tablet or a laptop. This solution makes the data collector's job harder, not easier, because they're trying to do field work with a desktop application.
Two days after taking delivery of their tablet systems, and many hundreds of thousands of dollars after converting to the national CAMA vendor’s system, the county decided to go back to paper, camera, and tape measure. Can you blame them? Clearly the vendor didn’t understand how to design an application that was purpose-built for the field. Maybe you’ve had a similar experience?
To truly modernize your data collection effort you need a software application the meets the following standards:
- Property records are digital;
- The application is built to be used on a tablet or a mobile phone;
- The application is purpose-built for data collection and has nothing to do with valuation (that’s what your CAMA system is for);
- All data – pictures, notes, sketch updates – are automatically associated with the property record.
Where do you find such an application? Two options. You can build a simple form-based application with Google Forms or Fulcrum (web-based form solutions that allow you to design your own forms and use them on a tablet or a phone). The upside of these solutions is that data collection will be digital. The downside is that you’ll have to design and maintain each form and you’ll still need to manually enter data you collect into the CAMA system.
Or you can work with vendors like CIDARE, who focus on field operations and build applications based on their deep knowledge of how an assessor does their job. You don’t have to design anything. You don’t have to build anything. You don’t have to worry about data entry (CIDARE has already solved the problem). And, you can leverage their analysis technology to make your job even easier (for instance, do you have time to search and review as many as 15 other sources of property data for the same property?).
A purpose built data collection application built by you or by a specialist like CIDARE is much better than paper and pencil or taking your CAMA system into the field. You'll find that data collection takes less time, that your data is more accurate, and that defending your values becomes easier.