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 Mobile GIS & LBS
Matt Sheehan
Matt Sheehan
Matt holds an MSc in Geography and GIS. He has been working with clients solving problems with GIS for over 17 years. Matt founded WebMapSolutions whose mission is to put innovative, intuitive GIS driven applications into the hands of new and existing users.

Initial Thoughts on Apple’s Map Announcement

June 12th, 2012 by Matt Sheehan

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.

Apple are targeting their platform we suspect with this launch; API’s or tools for developers will focus on Objective-C. Google have done the same with some of their cutting edge map solutions; with Java for native Android. We are pleased Apple see the business potential for location in the mobile sector. But, knowing their business practices, we hope this will not further deepen the split in the mobile world between iOS and Android. Now native apps have their place. But cross platform is what our clients are crying out for not multiple versions of the same app for each platform. ESRI, Google and Mapquest all provide super Javascript map API’s. We hope Apple do the same.

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.

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Mobile ArcGIS Online-Offline Editing

June 5th, 2012 by Matt Sheehan

No doubt the most frequent approach we get for the mobile ArcGIS apps we develop are offline or disconnected workflows. Clients want both to be able to visualize basemaps and their layers when out of wi-fi range, and offline editing; new feature additions, deletions and attribute edits.

ArcGIS 10.1 gives us tile packages (.tpk) so we can store tile pyramids locally on the device. Mansour has a nice example showing how to access basemap tiles using a tpk in offline mode on his blog.

The real challenge is offline editing. ESRI introduced Feature Server with Feature layers in ArcGIS 10, which work nicely in online mode. In April they released an Online-Offline Editing Sample using their iOS api. They include in their notes supporting the sample:

“For the sake of simplicity, the sample ….only allows you to add new features when the application is offline, not modify or delete existing features.”

Now there is the real challenge, what they have left out of the sample.

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Building Mobile GIS Apps using Titanium

May 22nd, 2012 by Matt Sheehan

We build custom cross platform mobile GIS and location based mobile applications. There is our one sentence elevator sales pitch. But what is this cross platform business? Put simply write one code base and run it across multiple platforms. So take your beautiful mobile web application written in HTML5/Javascript convert it to an installed app using Phonegap. Distribute it to the various app stores and you are done. You have created a hybrid mobile app. So why all the fuss over native apps? These are apps written in the language of choice of a specific platform; Objective C for iOS, Java for Android. So multiple versions of the same app need writing for each platform. These sound expensive to write and maintain. As with all things there are advantages and disadvantages of each approach.

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Is Google Maps GIS Lite?

May 11th, 2012 by Matt Sheehan

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.

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Reflections on CalGIS 2012 & Mobile GIS

April 16th, 2012 by Matt Sheehan

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.

Is Mobile The Future of GIS?

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.

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GIS = Providing Location Based Solutions

April 6th, 2012 by Matt Sheehan

It seems the blog post we wrote recently entitled “Should we retire the term GIS?” resonated with the geo-community. We thought is worth a follow up post.

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.

Feel free to let us know your thoughts.

Should We Retire the Term GIS?

April 4th, 2012 by Matt Sheehan

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).

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Custom Mobile ArcGIS Online

March 27th, 2012 by Matt Sheehan

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.

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Offline Mobile GIS App Demos

March 6th, 2012 by Matt Sheehan

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

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Mobile Geospatial Solutions – Transforming the Work Place

March 2nd, 2012 by Matt Sheehan

This article was originally planned to be titled ‘Mobiles in The Work Place – The End of Pen & Paper?”. A little narrow we thought, let’s broaden the focus and discuss more generally the potential impact of mobile in the work place. Examples will be taken from the engineering sector.

Mobile computing is not new, the likes of Garmin and Trimble have been in the mobile marketplace for years. Their emphasis is geographic; so mobile maps and Geographic Information systems (GIS). ESRI’s ArcPad has been one of the more popular mobile software packages running on these mobile devices; Windows the most widely used mobile platform. The standard work flow had been wait for Windows XP on your Trimble abc to load, open ArcPad and off you go. A handful of companies once controlled the mobile market. Costs were as a result high; $500+ for software, and $1000’s for the hardware. But those days may soon be over. With the advent of the so called ‘mobile revolution’, mobile costs have fallen dramatically. The launch of the IPhone and IPad have heralded a new era of mobile availability; hardware, platforms and apps. Smartphones and tablets have become very popular. In many ways 2012 resembles 1996 with the Internet. Consumer led, and over-hyped, yet with the potential to change how we live and work.

The geospatial sector has always been a niche. Mention that you develop or work with GIS apps, and you will get a blank stare. Geospatial has always been on the edge of main stream computing. With the popularity of the Internet, geospatial software tools moved from the PC to the Web. Google gave us widely available Web maps in 2006, plus so called API’s for developers to build their own geo-focused apps. Traditional GIS vendors like ESRI moved their offerings forward. The release of ArcGIS was an important milestone. Many others jumped into the mix; Yahoo, Bing. We’ve moved from famine to a feast of potential geospatial solutions. The boundaries between the geo-solution providers has become confusing. These boundaries will increasingly blur, thanks to mobile.

Geo-Mobile Solutions

So a new computing revolution seems to be upon us. Just as the Internet changed our world, mobile may have a similar impact. Mobiles increasing popularity moves geospatial from computing’s periphery, to front and center. Applications running on mobile devices which know where we are, and can discover and display what is around us are proving to be very popular. So where is mobile in early 2012; consumer led, with business’ slow to follow. The games category in each of the mobile app stores remains the most populated and popular. This will change. Widespread business adoption will transform the mobile landscape we know today.

As a geo-focused mobile application development company, we spend most of our time applying mobile technology in the work place. From this work, a number of common themes have surfaced; simplifying work flows, accurate and efficient data collection, on site search and discovery, organization and collaboration. It is worth spending time discussing each of these areas.

Mobile GIS – Simplifying Work flows

As we have said, there are some excellent mobile software packages available. They each provide mobile workers a plethora of tools to get their jobs done. Too many tools, some say. How so? One client said:

“We train our staff to use specific functionality in ArcPad. It takes a while to learn. Losing staff, and having to train new hires is both frustrating and expensive. If only we had a simpler mobile app which provided a work flow designed for our need”

Let’s expand on this and look at an example in the pipeline industry. When pipes are buried, an area or easement, is set aside a fixed distance on each side of the pipe. The easement has to be inspected/surveyed at set time intervals for encroachment. Building and vegetation growth are most common. When undertaking this type of work pipeline companies have been faced with a number of choices:

1) Customize existing mobile software solutions.
2) Adapt new software packages.

One company we spoke to use Trimble mobile devices with a highly customized version of CartoPack for their field work. They needed easement inspection functionality and looked at extending further CartoPack, but were put off by the added complexity and considerable cost. After much discussion they decided to adapt ArcPad to provide the required functionality. The final solution worked, but the process of getting there proved challenging. Their reflections were:

1) Having a single tool which provided just the required functionality would have been the preferred solution
2) ArcPad worked but the work flow is complex. The software has too many menus and input areas. Staff need to be trained to navigate this complexity.
3) The process is expensive. The Trimble GeoXH costs around $6000, plus customizing ArcPad took longer and cost more than anticipated. There were many unexpected roadblocks extending the software.
4) Accuracy is an important part of this process. Sub meter readings are needed. Devices like the Trimble GeoXH provide this level of accuracy. Ideally we would like to use cheaper hardware which provides high level of accuracy, with a custom, functionally focused mobile app.

An additional part the companies easement inspection process is a second inspection. This serves to both verify the first inspection and add additional data; including new attributes and photos. The second inspection currently uses different software tools and is not integrated with the central data store from the first inspection. Time has to be spent combining the two data sets. They mentioned if they could use a single mobile app for the first and second inspections and automatically update a centralized data source, they would save much time and cost.

Another example of complex work flows is provided by Gateway Mapping in Utah, who offer excellent geo-software used by engineering companies. But the difficulties using their software, sometimes requiring 18 fields to be populated before tasks can be completed, is both frustrating and time consuming for users.

The new mobile revolution gives us the ability to build light-weight custom mobile apps which provide the required work flows without overhead. Easy to learn and easy to use. The days of few companies controlling the mobile space will soon be over.

Tablet & SmartPhone GIS – Collaboration & Sharing

The word collaboration in a computing sense often brings video-conferencing to mind. That is certainly something easily done with mobile devices. But there are many ways we can share information in real time, or near real time. One question often repeats itself from clients: how do we share field data with office workers? Let’s take the approach mentioned in the previous section, digital data collection, and extend this discussion. Map annotation tools are common on the geoweb. The ESRI Flex viewer for ArcGIS includes a very nice widget which allows users to add shapes, lines and text to a map. The widget also allows users to store this data as a text file, and open/render these text files. Thus one users annotation can be shared with others. Extend this to mobiles. An engineer is coordinating building work with owners and contractors. She is on site using an Android Galaxy tablet mobile annotation app; the equivalent of the tool in the Flex viewer for ArcGIS. Her annotations file is being shared with her office based boss in near real time. This form of sharing and collaboration is now quite possible. We have been developing these types of applications for clients. Combine this type of data sharing with text and video conferencing software and you have some very powerful decision making solutions.

Mobile Replacing Pen & Paper – Data Collection

Sounds a little dry and boring ‘data collection’. But let’s put things in context. Whenever we are out of the office working, how do we record work related information? Most commonly with pen and paper. Maybe throw in a paper map to mark the spot; ‘broken pipe here’. If we are really sophisticated we might resort to an automated phone system, along with a bewildering selection of menus; ‘for broken pipe select 2′. For visual records we carry a digital camera; ”photo 1 is broken pipe 1 marked on map, with notes on said pipe somewhere in my notepad’. You get the idea. Laptops are sometimes used in an effort to simplify this work flow. Not the most convenient solution, but an improvement on pen and paper.

Construction management is important in many engineering projects. Documenting progress, gathering photo records, collecting data on project features and existing features. Much of this data collection is being done in the field. Returning to the pipeline business. When a pipe is being laid, ongoing information is being gathered on site. Again information related directly to the pipes; the position of valves and joins, and information on the surrounding area. Currently, this data is stored in both a digital and non digital ways. Let’s imagine an improved system. All field engineers have IPads. They have a pipes layer overlaid on a satellite base map, this is a visualization of the pipeline being laid. The attributes of each 40ft section of pipe laid is recorded using an IPad app, and sent dynamically back to a central GIS. Photos, taken with the IPad and stamped with time and lat/long, and other records are attached to this attribute data. Additional notes are also taken, maybe where the pipeline crosses utilities. Imagine the mobile app can not only record and update data relating to the the pipe layer directly, but also related information. New mobile tools to collect this data, central storage and access to all this data, will transform the working life of civil engineers.

Mobile Geospatial Intelligence – Search & Discovery

Last week a water pipe broke in the street of the parents of a friend. The resulting geyser drew a crowd. City engineers were soon on the scene. It was 5:30pm. Tracing and shutting all valves feeding the broken pipe was the engineers challenge. Out came a 2″ thick book which was thumbed through by the chief engineer. Orders and directions were barked, between more thumbing. By 6:30pm all valves had been closed saving, only just, two basements from flooding.

Let’s imagine a different scenario. The chief engineer on arrival pulls out his IPad, instead of his thick book. He opens a geospatial mobile app, adding water pipe and related layers to a map viewer. He then runs a query based on current location, close to the broken pipe, against these layers. A GIS processes the query and returns the locations of all valves required to be shut. These are then displayed on the map, and shared with the crew. Imagine the improvement in time and efficiency following this second scenario. We now have this technology.

Mobile GIS – Organization & Coordination

We’ve been quite impressed with CityWorks; a GIS-centric asset management system. Work tickets are at the heart of their system. So ticket generation (a bulb needs replacing at xy street), ticket distribution to field crews (fix bulb at xy street), feedback/updates (light fixture broken needs fixing before bulb replacement can take place), associated information (picture/notes on light fixture), generation of new or related work orders (light fixture needs fixing at xy street).

CityWorks is a server solution, one which sits on top of ArcGIS. It is now possible to write custom mobile apps, running on the newer mobile platforms, which connect to CityWorks. As an example, the video below shows Freeance Mobile for CityWorks:

It is worth noting that CityWorks is not a cheap solution. But building mobile applications which connect to CityWorks and similar systems is now both easy and inexpensive. These types of systems should make the coordination and organization of field crews far easier.


In summary, we are in the midst of a mobile revolution; currently consumer led, but soon to be transformed by business adoption. Field workers will use this new digital technology to help gather data, discover and visualize what is around them, share and collaborate in real time work related tasks and information. The mobile market place is being flooded with cheaper hardware. Mobile apps are now appearing which are task specific, and provide simplified work flows.

It truly is the end of pen and paper.

We would be interested to hear your thoughts on mobile in the work place. Contact me at

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