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GPS and fieldwork

A discussion about the usefulness of GPS in fieldwork was held in May 2009 on the RNLD email list and is summarised below.



Does anyone have any advice or experiences to share about the usefulness of GPS in fieldwork? I'm in the process of putting together my equipment wish list for fieldwork in Northern Australia and was wondering if I should think about taking a GPS with me.  I've never actually used one before, but was thinking it could come in handy, especially if we wanted to do things like mapping Dreaming sites/sacred sites.


I reckon it's a good idea; it may come in handy some time down the track when someone wants to know exactly where speaker X said that dreaming Y was. I think you can now get digital cameras that have GPS receivers in them, and you can certainly get mini GPS receivers that fit onto the camera's hot shoe, except it looks as though you need a fairly high-level camera in order to connect it via the 10-pin connector.

There are a bunch of small cameras that have GPS units in them, such as this Coolpix from Nikon
. Of course, you can probably just get a GPS unit and record the location when at sites, or when taking a photo, and you could then use it for any number of other functions, like going out bush to a particular location. This may be a better idea.

I believe C.C. Cheng used GPS for a house-by-house study of variation in his home town in Taiwan a few years ago.

I have a Garmin GPS 60 and I find it easy to use. In conjunction with a digital camera its track information can geocode images (using, e.g., myTracks2 or similar software) based only on the shared timestamps of the images and the GPS data. It is of course yet another device that needs batteries, but it could also be considered a necessity for remote location and off-road travel.

I have a camera with an inbuilt GPS which is quite good, though of course you have to remember to take some photos close-up to get an accurate reading. You could also talk to the Aboriginal Affairs Planning Authority NT (AAPANT) in Darwin. I gave them coordinates for a number of Dreaming tracks in Bilinarra country and they did up some fantastic maps for me mapping the coordinates.

David Nash showed off to me his new GPS data logger, called a Gisteq Phototracker Mini, but there's a bunch of them, ranging from about US$50 to a couple of hundred I think, and there are other brands offering similar things.

Basically you can tell it to record a journey (the distance between waypoints user-settable from about 15m to 1000m), or you can click it and record a waypoint manually. When you upload the data to a computer, it shows you the waypoints separate from the recorded journey.

I gave it a quick go, trying to get the data off, because it's apparently just gpx files, which are readable from a bunch of different programs, including Google Earth. However I had immense difficulty. As David explained, the model he bought doesn't mount; you have to have the software to import the data, whereas other models (he mentioned one made by Sony) do mount and you can therefore drag and drop the datafiles.

Although Aidan (above) didn't manage to get the data out of the device by unadvertised means,  the free Gisteq software does interrogate the device OK.
As well as recording a track (/route) (at a user-controlled granularity), a GPS logger is good for geotagging photos from a camera that doesn't have a GPS.  It is also useful for geolocating video (or any other records), providing the clock time of the video etc is recorded somehow.
Re batteries—GPS loggers (unlike regular GPSs) typically recharge through USB so don't need a separate charger.  And it is small and light enough that it can be worn (eg on one's hat(!)) and ignored for the day.
However a GPS logger is no use for showing location while out and about.

Just wanted to add a side point to using a handheld GPS. But I might add, these GPS loggers are particularly handy if the weight of your kit is important. I've been playing with an i-gotU logger which has software for PC and an open source client for Mac or Linux.
It's a good idea if you record a track route while taking photos to start by taking a photo of the screen of the GPS with the date and time (and location) displayed. Photographing the screen will allow you to finely calibrate the difference between the time stamp in your photo, and the date/time on the GPS (which is more accurate). There are programs that let you then later batch convert the time stamps in photos by a set amount if they are incorrect.

The date might be incorrect because your watch was slow, or because you haven't changed time zones on your camera, or (and this is no recommendation for being lazy about setting dates on devices) you forgot to set the time. Also, if your little camera battery that keeps the time ticking over in your camera when its switched off dies, then by taking a photo of the GPS each time you switch the camera on, you will often be able to recover the date and time for your photos (given that that the time will reset to "zero" and tick over while you leave it switched on). You don't want to depend on it though, because many digital cameras will often switch off after a set amount of time.

Perhaps starting a video with a shot of your GPS might not be a bad idea?

For those with iPhones you can also get an app called GPS log, which is a very quick and user-friendly way to log particular locations. You can tag each log, and add photos and text as well. You can then view locations on Google Maps.


Thanks to contributors Greg Dickson, Aiden Wilson, Steven Bird, Nick Thieberger, Felicity Meakins, David Nash, Tom Honeyman, Jessica Denniss