Small packages for big data: Putting GIS in your pocket

You may already own a big part of the future of GIS: your smartphone. Here’s how it can transform the way you work.

It’s no secret that geographic information systems have big appetites for data. The demand isn’t slowing. Industry segments including government, utilities, transportation, energy, and their mobile workforces are discovering the value of spatial information to managing resources and activities. The trend has produced growing demands for tools to manage and use geospatial data.

In addition to gathering data to create new databases and GIS layers, significant resources are devoted to maintaining spatial data. Once a GIS is populated, its information must be continually refreshed as growth and change affects natural and built environments. Incomplete or out-of-date data can reduce confidence in the accuracy of the GIS, potentially drawing down the value of the information and services it provides. It’s a risk that GIS professionals can’t afford to take.

To address the need for timely, comprehensive information, organisations are putting a new spin on widely accepted technologies.

The need for customised data

Whether for initial database development or ongoing data collection and maintenance, data capture is an essential component for any GIS. It’s also a major component in GIS operating costs. As a result, any gains in productivity and efficiency during data collection can deliver significant dividends to downstream users and processes.

The largest improvements in data collection efficiency can be achieved by blending software, hardware and domain expertise to provide the best fit for a particular application. For example, consider utility technicians collecting information on wastewater collection systems. The technicians capture location data as well as information on the depth, materials, and conditions of manholes, drains, and pipes. Often working in urban settings, they typically need decimetre-accuracy positioning, rugged field devices and guidance in safety and measurement procedures. In addition, wireless Internet technologies enable field workers to access rich datasets for information on adjacent utilities and structures.

By contrast, wetlands specialists collect information on riparian boundaries and plant life over large regions. They may also measure water depths and collect and document samples. These applications can function with meter-level positioning, but require technicians to capture extensive attribute data and images. Their field equipment needs to be compact, waterproof, and capable of operating in remote locations where wireless Internet connections may not be available.

Commercial solutions providers face significant challenges in meeting the needs of such disparate applications. The concept of 'One Size Fits All' is ancient history.

Customised software meets BYOD

In a 2014 analysis, Gartner Inc. reported that electronics manufacturers shipped roughly 2.1 billion mobile smart devices, mainly smartphones and tablets. Market estimates for 2015 grew to 2.3 billion units. While many of these devices (especially tablets) are purchased by businesses, a sizable portion of smartphones used for work purposes are owned by individual employees. This approach, often referred to as 'Bring Your Own Device' (BYOD), provides a cost-effective platform for gathering and sharing information throughout an enterprise. In many applications, smartphones or tablets can replace dedicated, purpose-built mobile computers. A recent study published by McKinsey revealed that more than 30 per cent of tablet owners used their devices for work-related tasks beyond basic communications, including content creation, review, and data analysis.

But simply putting smartphones and tablets into the hands of large numbers of people is not enough. The devices must be adapted to operate as an integral part of a company’s workflow.

The McKinsey report also noted that 29 per cent of BYOD tablets and 14 per cent of smartphones are connected to external business hardware. In geospatial applications, external devices such as cameras, bar-code and meter readers, environmental sensors and distance measurement devices are common. By automating the interaction with external sensors, field data collection becomes faster and carries less chance of inaccurate (or forgotten) entry of external data. For positioning, customised systems can use a smartphone’s internal GPS capability or link to external, precise sensors.

The future in your pocket

The revolution in mobile computing will continue to accelerate. Improvements in hardware and software will bring new efficiency and capability to data collection while shrinking the time and distance between field, office and stakeholders.

Customised solutions, built around flexible devices and cloud services, will enable GIS professionals to deliver higher-quality information in less time. Take your smartphone out of your pocket. It’s time to release its full potential.

Ron Bisio, vice president, Trimble