Future Developments: Information Technology, Data Collection, and Getting the Word Out

Jason J. Griffin, Director & John C. Pair, Horticultural Center, Kansas State University, USA

With over 600 accessions in the NC-7 evaluations program spanning 50 years, data collection and record keeping can be a daunting task. In addition, trials are distributed across 18 states and over 30 cooperators. Evaluation reports, representing one-, three-, and ten-year performance have been used over the years in one form or another to collect data. While the reporting forms have been modified and simplified over the last half century, improving their completion, submission, and accuracy remains a primary goal.

While paper and pencil remain the primary method of data collection and submission, advances in Information Technology (IT) may improve the accuracy and overall effectiveness of the NC-7 evaluations. Bar code labels or radio frequency identification labels that are easily read with portable scanners can ensure plant identification and location as well as instantaneously recalling previously recorded data for ‘in the field’ comparison. Convenient portable computers that allow in-field data recording directly to the evaluation forms may increase accuracy by reducing the opportunity for errors while transcribing the data from field notes. Finally, electronic submission of raw data or evaluation forms back to Ames, IA will once again eliminate potential errors in data transfer from paper to database.

Finally, making the NC-7 program and its data more accessible to the consumer is necessary for its survival. With so many trial states and locations involved, no one reporting method will please all who visit the NC-7 website. However, database information that can be searched and cross referenced by accession, genus, species, state, or locations within a state will expand the usefulness of the data to a wider audience. As many states have more than one NC-7 evaluation site, intra-state web sites with a format consistent to that of the NC-7 home site may offer opportunities for more localized collaboration, communication, and overall information sharing.

Data collection and reporting
Since inception, data reporting in the NC-7 evaluation has undergone some moderate revisions in an attempt to simplify and thereby improve data collection. Initially, cooperators were asked to return a 5-year ‘Species-Planting Site Report Form’ for each accession with survival, growth, and size data. Eventually reports were expanded to include a ‘Report of Planting Form’ and ‘One-, Five-, and Ten-year Performance Reports’ (Widrlechner, 1990), which currently remains in place. In addition, each accession was accompanied by a Ten-year ‘Accession Record Card’ that recorded an annual tally of survival (and reason for failed survival), injury (and cause of injury), height and spread, foliage color (summer and fall), foliage appearance, bloom (quality and duration), fruit (quantity and duration), and winter injury. ‘Accession Record Cards’ have not been included in recent years.

Currently, the ‘Report of Planting’ that accompanies each accession is completed and returned to Ames, IA immediately following planting. It simply requires: date planted, number of individual plants of an accession planted, where on site was it planted, the general condition of the plants (extent of bud break, stem damage, and root damage if present), and pertinent comments on the condition of the plants. ‘One-, Five-, and Ten-Year Performance Reports’ are not much more complicated. One-year reports ask for the number of individuals of an accession currently alive, average height, average spread, and comments on injury or loss. Additionally, care in regards to irrigation, pruning, fertilization, insecticides, herbicides, mowing, mulching, and cultivation are requested. Finally the report asks for the plants performance (poor, medium, or excellent) and general comments. Along with all the information on the One-Year Performance Report, the Five- and Ten-Year Reports ask for additional information such as: current years shoot growth, foliage characteristics (condition, emergence, senescence, and fall color), flower and fruit characteristics (date of peak, effectiveness, and number), and ‘Do you recommend this plant?’.

Technology advances for data collection
Although reporting forms are not difficult, by their nature, they can be time consuming. The steps involved with locating the correct plant, collecting data, transcribing data to the reporting forms, and mailing to Ames, place additional responsibilities on limited staff. Additionally, if personal changes have occurred, there is a learning curve associated with familiarizing new data collectors to the plant collections as well as data collection training. Technologies that provide consistency from one evaluation to the next, as well as one evaluator to the next, will only increase evaluation participation as well as accuracy.

Portable, hand-held computers are capable of recalling plant location as well as recently collected data. Combined with labeling advances such as bar coded or radio frequency identification (RFID) labels, the chances for human introduced error decreases. The ability to scan and confirm plant identification and location in the field along with data entry greatly increase the likelihood that data will be collected on time and eventually submitted. Collected data can be easily downloaded and electronically submitted (for a brief discussion on RFID technology and the nursery industry, see Bruening, 2004). Tablet PC’s also allow electronic data entry and submission. These hand-held PC’s would allow data to be collected and entered on the same reporting forms currently used by the NC-7 trials. They also allow hand written comments to be digitally entered onto the screen. These forms could then also be electronically submitted thus eliminating the need for data to be transcribed more than once.

Currently, data reporting forms are mailed via the US Post Office to Ames, IA where data is entered into the database. With the abundance of collaborators involved in the NC-7 trials, expediting that process through email or internet submission is inevitable. Such a data submission process would eventually facilitate rapid data entry and analysis. Electronic data submission could be as simple as emailed reporting forms via word processor attachments or more advanced such as website data entry.

Data Presentation and Getting the Word Out Data utilization by any interested individual it the ultimate goal. Currently, users familiar with the NC-7 program or searching for specific species data would be able to locate sufficient information. In its present format, the NC-7 web site provides detailed data on individual accessions. Significant advances to the website, would be the ability to conduct detailed searches. For example, the ability to view data for all accessions at a single location or state, would give the program a local influence. Additionally, searching the data base for specific reporting criteria would be beneficial to users. For example, searching for all accessions with an overall performance rating of ‘Poor’, ‘Medium’, or ‘Excellent’ by location, state, or over the whole spectrum of cooperators would provide valuable information. Although such a database may not be practical for the entire program, there is the chance for individual cooperators to develop their own web based information delivery technology. Perhaps cooperators within a state could collaborate to provide a ‘State NC-7 Database’.

Although the NC-7 Trials have been ongoing since 1954, only the data from 1984 to present is available on-line. However, pre-1984 data sheets have been scanned, and will soon be uploaded providing a complete picture of the program. The addition of this information will enable individuals that are new to the program to locate information regarding plants installed prior to 1984.

The NC-7 Program in Wichita, KS
The John C. Pair Horticultural Center (formerly the Wichita Horticulture Research Center), a research station for the Department of Horticulture, Forestry and Recreation Resources of Kansas State University, has been involved in the NC-7 trials since the stations beginning in 1971. The “NC-7 Block”, as it is known in Wichita, stands at approximately 3 acres. Upon receiving plants in spring, they are either immediately field planted or containerized for the growing season and planted in fall. One season of container growing typically ensures plants, once planted, have a larger root system and are large enough to be seen by equipment operators. Accessions are then planted in rows, which facilitates easy maintenance (mowing, herbicide, irrigation), mapping, and identification. Typically, all individuals of an accession are planted together, and all accessions for a single year are planted in close proximity, thus making data collection more convenient. Plants are labeled with aluminum tags engraved with the botanical name and accession number, then and fastened to the plant with electrical wire. This system has proven inexpensive, long lasting, and sufficient for our needs. Plants are then mapped, which consists of nothing more than noting row number and location within the row. Plants are evaluated in the fall of the evaluation year and reports are forwarded to Ames, IA.

In our efforts to raise awareness of the NC-7 program, tours of the John C. Pair Horticultural Center always include a stop at the NC-7 block to discuss the program and some of its plants. Additionally, the NC-7 program is frequently mentioned in our station newsletter and listed on our own website. In the coming year the NC-7 project will also be displayed in our station’s booth at the Wichita Garden Show.

Continued efforts are needed to keep the NC-7 program current and accurate. The implementation of IT advances will simplify data collection and data entry. Increasing the accuracy and submission of reporting forms will ensure the NC-7 program sees another 50 years. Additionally, making data more applicable to the common horticulture enthusiast through website advances and increasing awareness will keep the program in front of our customers.

Literature Cited:
Bruening, B. 2004. RFID reality. Amer. Nurs. 199(12):40-42

Widrlechner, M.P. 1990. NC 7 regional ornamental trials: Evaluation of new woody plants. METRIA Proceedings 7: 41 47.