Transmitting data without the Internet

Would you, could you, on a train?

I’m hungry. I’m on an Amtrak train from Raleigh, NC to Washington DC and I need a snack. Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham starts echoing through my head.

Would you eat them on a train? Would you eat them in the rain?

The cafe car attendant is using an outdated device that requires Internet access to process credit cards. Fifteen minutes later, it eventually process my transaction. I say to her, “That was painful. How often do you have to turn away customers when the credit machine cannot process payments?”

She sighs, “Often.”

I will not eat them on a train. I would not, could not, in the rain.

I chose train travel over driving my car so I could work during this leg of my trip. I’d have my hands free to work plus access to Amtrak’s free Wi-Fi. The experience at the cafe car suggested this may be a long shot. A hot spot, it was not.

I would not, could not on a boat, I would not, could not, with a goat.

I open my laptop and launch the web browser. The Amtrak Wi-Fi pops up and directs me to a web survey that I must submit in order to receive my free connection to the Internet.

Here’s where it gets crazy. I can’t fill out the survey to gain Wi-Fi access because the Wi-Fi is so weak, the page won’t even load. I tried to join a number of times but nothing progressed.

Luckily, I didn’t need really need internet access at that moment. But Amtrak couldn’t say the same.

How can you quickly collect digital data when you’re miles away from the Internet?

Problems like this are my specialty. I build custom mobile applications that aid in collecting and distributing data from the field, away from a desktop. On a moving train? No problem. A boat five miles offshore? Sure. On foot in the middle of a protected natural habitat? Got it.

A true data collection app must be able to operate when it is disconnected from the Internet. It must have a syncing engine that knows how to use brief moments of connectivity to pass data up to the cloud and grab data down to use on the device.

My go-to platform for creating digital clipboards is called iFormBuilder, and it’s actually much more than an app — it’s a framework for building powerful, logical data collection forms that operate on and offline.

iFormBuilder is a powerful tool that plays well with lots of web services like Google Apps, Slack, Trello, Zapier, Klipfolio. It allows for customization and endless integrations with systems that would surprise you like Quickbooks, Stripe, Slack (more about the power of Slack in a future post) and others.

A data collection app built on this platform allows the user to obtain richer, more accurate data way beyond the capabilities of paper forms. It can capture photos, audio and signatures for over the air submission. It utilizes automations to trigger notifications and calculations for real-time analytics. Users can quickly divine meaning and action items from data. It’s easy and fun to use, making work less of a chore.

At the end of Green Eggs and Ham, The grumpy protagonist finally succumbs. Once he gets a taste, he wants it everywhere — on a train, on a boat, in a box, with a fox. This is mobile technology. Once you’ve had access, anything less is not just an inconvenience, it’s a deal breaker, especially when it comes to doing business.

Amtrak’s lack of reliable network connectivity limits the rider experience in so many ways. Amtrak riders should able to check connection status, change travel arrangements, or buy tickets right from their seat. Beyond Amtrak’s own direct sales, travelers could book hotel rooms, arrange car rental, or enjoy in-seat entertainment. The lost revenue is significant.

It may be a while before Amtrak can prioritize improving their Wi-Fi. In the meantime, a simple offline app could at least give Amtrak the ability to sell snacks to a captive audience.

Dawson is an expert in mobile technology, bar-code scanning, automation and integration. His work includes mobile application development for the NFL, US Congress, Caterpillar Corporation, Hive, and OpenMyVideo. He is CTO for Innovapad and a Senior Advisor for Sparktivity.

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