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Handheld Computers for Direct Observation of the Social and Physical Environment

 This article evaluates the use of handheld computers for systematic observation of the social and physical environments. Handheld computers, also known as personal digital assistants (PDAs), make the advantages of computer-assisted data collection (CADC) more accessible to field-based researchers. In particular, CADC with handheld computers may improve data quality, reduce turnaround time, and enhance research capacity for community-academic partnerships. Here, we describe our experiences using handheld computers for the Healthy Environments Partnership's Neighborhood Observational Checklist, an instrument for systematic observation of the social and physical environments. We discuss hardware and software considerations, observer training and implementation strategies, and observer attitudes toward using handhelds in the field. We conclude that handheld computers are a feasible alternative to pen-and-paper forms, and we identify ways that future researchers can maximize the advantages of CADC with handheld computers to advance our understanding of how neighborhood context relates to individual-level outcomes.