Our thinking has been for the longest time that mobile will revolutionize the field of location-focused technology. Niche areas like GIS will be pulled into the mainstream under the location technology umbrella. Location based services (LBS) will coalesce with other location focused technologies.
As a company, we made a strategic decision nearly 2 years ago to move our focus from GIS development for the PC web, to mobile location app development. This year has been crazy busy. Combine this with Apples recent announcement, the launch of ESRI’s ArcGIS online, and new developments at Google and MapQuest, and we feel our strategy was correct; location is now at center stage in the mobile world. Making the decision when we did has also allowed us to develop expertise, and thus leadership in the location mobile app development space.
Offline or disconnected mode is one of the most in demand client and potential client requests we receive. And yet the main spatial solution providers have only made small steps in this direction. Chatting with ESRI, offline ArcGIS is on their roadmap, but no major releases are planned in the near future. Our interest is cross-platform solutions. So recent iOS and Android specific announcements from the likes of Google, though very interesting, do not serve our clients well.
It was time for us to look into our own solution. We broke down the problem into manageable chunks, then conferred with Mansour at ESRI on the details. Let’s discuss at a high level these pieces.
Offline versus Online Mode
In code we can detect if a mobile device has online connectivity. If it does reach out over the network for map and server functionality. If offline look locally, to the device itself, for resources.
Mobile devices have varying amounts of local storage. They also come with so called lite databases. In offline mode we take advantage of these local resources.
Offline ArcGIS Visualization – Tile Packages
Let’s imagine we have an ArcGIS Online web map we wish to view on our mobile in disconnected mode. Using ArcGIS 10.1 we can now generate a tile package of the layers used in the web map. These .tpk files vary in size, we need to be careful when generating these packages, particularly thinking about the capacity of the mobile device targeted for the mobile ArcGIS app. But once the tile package has been generated this need be stored on the mobile device. Note, tile packages which include base map tiles will need agreement with ESRI since there are various licensing agreements attached to the source of these base tiles.
Our first reaction to the recent announcement from Apple on their maps initiative is that it brings little new to the mapping landscape. As a mobile location-focused development company we see nothing which would help our customers beyond our current ESRI, Google and MapQuest solutions.
One thing we were excited to hear from Google was their announcement last week of an offline or disconnected mobile solution. Initially a Java for Android launch; we see this as a long overdue move. Many of our clients require offline mobile functionality. We have our own disconnected mobile solution, but it would have been nice to have had Apple announce their own offline mobile solution in their maps API. Looks like Google will remain ahead here and in many other map related areas.
We’ve never been a company which sits on its hands and wonders what is around the corner. Sure we have some key partners, but they don’t limit our reach and exploration. Our goal is to provide the most appropriate solution to our clients. That might be an ESRI solution, Google, MapQuest, technology combination, open source. We are continually working to expand our skills and add more tools to our geospatial toolbox. The more tools we have available, the more effective we are at picking the right tool for the job. (we all know using pliers as a hammer is never ideal.)
In the past we have leaned on the likes of ESRI’s ArcGIS Server (and their various web mapping APIs) as well as some of the more advanced open-source options like GeoServer, OpenLayers, OpenScales, etc. But things are changing. Attend any GIS focused conference and you will notice two things. First, that ESRI now talk about “non GIS users”, and not just in passing; all the time. And second that Google are usually there in one form or other. After chatting with one senior Google geo person we decided to look at their offering in greater depth.
Just back from CalGIS in Sacramento. An interesting two day conference. Our presentation; ‘Is mobile the Future of GIS?” was one of the last sessions on the Friday. Its a shame since we gave an overview of the mobile market space; in hindsight it would have been better positioned early in the conference. Even so, we still managed a good sized audience.
The conference was made up of a cross section of GIS focused organisations across the state; both public and private. We were interested to see which themes were most discussed, and gauge where mobile fits into a traditionally web/desktop GIS focused conference.
First the responses. Below are a few on the comments we received:
“No. I saw this a few months ago (maybe from the same group; maybe not). This came from a location based services firm – so that’s why they want to change it. GIS is still the main term to use, for what I do at least; and folks can still use lots of sub terms if they want.”
“I’ve also heard geospatial technologies (geospatial being duplicative). But GIS includes the concept of analysis, where location does not. Location Based Solutions are applications, while GIS is analysis – how about “Geographic and Location Based Solutions?”)”
“True, I completely agree. GIS is not only a niche term, it is a discipline which occupies the time of people aged 55+ dealing with sub millimeter accuracy, INSPIRE (I prefer to call it EXPIRE), land management and maybe utilities. It has nothing to do with crowd sourcing (OSM), modern technology (mobile apps, SOA, Cloud) or “new” markets (Business GIS, LBS etc.). GIS people are still looking for that “killer app”, but cannot find it. Call it location services, Spatial Business Intelligence or whatever: the people in the industry need to change. We do still need the “55+ sub millimeter” people. Mainly for accuracy and standards.”
“I agree with most of what you have to say except I disagree that the term GIS should be retired. What I’d like to see is the use of specific terms where appropriate (like LBS as you’ve suggested) instead of using GIS as a catch-all for all things spatial. Just my two cents.”
Very interesting. Actually (counter to the first comment above) we have historically been an ESRI focused company. We wrote our first Web based ESRI map viewer (for the US Forest Service) back in 1997. Long, long before the term location based services (LBS) had been coined. Maybe this is at the crux of the discussion. Mobile has made us rethink our mission. We are a company started by geographers. Ok, we have a more diverse group together now, but geography remains at the heart of our work. Our focus is understanding better, and visualizing the space around us.
Geography, space, location, place. With my mobile in hand, I want information about what or who is near me. I want to run analysis based on my current lat/long. Is that handled by a GIS, LBS or other geo-backend? I care little, I just know that my current location is the centre of my focus. Whether I am a public utility worker trying to visualize an underground pipe (layer) and run a network analysis to find the valves which feed the pipe beneath my feet. Or I’m simply trying to see which friends are within a certain distance of my current location. With mobile everything is about location.
We are at the beginning of a geo-sector boom. Its a boom which is driven by mobile, centred on location. Nobody cares about the tags attached to the technology which provides the solutions. Users just want the solutions. And they are location based solutions.
The future of mobile is location! ………. The future of computing is mobile!
Two bold statements. We don’t necessarily believe them yet. But one would be foolish to ignore them offhand. What do these have to do with our question: “Should we retire the term GIS”?
GIS deals with location. Why not simply use this universally understood term when we sell our geo-technology solutions .. and drop GIS altogether? As the need for location technology grows, lets begin to use the language all can understand. GIS is a niche term understood by geo-nerds, often in the public sector (nothing like a good generalization).
ArcGIS Online and the new ArcGIS 10.1 release are about to provide a plethora of online and offline mobile GIS solutions. We launched GeoMobile for ArcGIS nearly a year ago. The goal was to provide a custom mobile ArcGIS app. We include a configuration file so users could add their own map layers; basemaps, dynamic and tiled ArcGIS layers. The mobile app has proved to be very popular. But the need for a single service, which provides all map data, has nagged at us. To the rescue comes ArcGIS Online and web maps. Now users can publish their ArcGIS layers, shapefiles, CSV, GPX, KML ad WMS to a single service. The associated web map can then be consumed by mobile applications like GeoMobile for ArcGIS.
ArcGIS 10.1 is exciting for many reasons. Primarily, in this discussion, because it allows users to generate tile packages for use offline. More on this in a later post. Lets first walk through the steps to publish a web map in ArcGIS Online.
We have been asked many times about offline mobile capabilities. Situations where users are in areas without Wi-Fi access and still wish to access their mapping and GIS data, and geospatial tools using their Apple or Android mobiles. We have put together a video below which demonstrates a number of ways this can be done. To summarise the content. We need consider basemaps, layers and tools:
Basemaps – to access basemaps offline – street, satellite, topo maps – the basemap tiles for required zoom level need to be stored on the smartphone or tablet. The video shows two potential ways this can be done:
While online; auto zoom to a specific zoom level, and cache the tiles loaded during this zoom. Then referencing these when offline
Load a tpk or tile package which contains all the tiles required when offline.
Shapefiles – to view our layers, a shapefile needs be loaded onto the mobile device as a zip while online. In the video we discuss performance. The depackaging of the zip and rendering of the shapefile can be time consuming. We have optimised shapefile rendering by using fast shapefile depackagers and generating a bitmap of the shapefile.
The video below walks through solutions for offline basemaps and shapefiles: