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Mobile GIS in Politics for 2012

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

Politics revolves around organization. The increasing popularity of mobiles; IPhones, IPads and Android devices will revolutionize political organization and campaigning. It is now possible to provide field workers with mobile applications which will allow better organization and coordination of campaigns. Further, these applications will let users dynamically collect and upload data from the field. Campaigns and unit committees will be able to access this centralized data in real time. Improving both the speed and accuracy of decision making. Data collection and access is one thing, visualizing this data is quite another. The ability to search, query and tabulate this data is huge. But maps provide a very intuitive way to view this type of data. We will discuss in this article the potential uses of mobile applications for political campaigning. And how maps and mobile GIS can be used to better visualize campaign data.

Mobile Apps & Voter Data Management

Much in the world of political campaigning is centered around canvassing, phone banks and walk lists. Walk lists are for campaign field workers, essentially their voter contact list. Mobile applications running on smartphones such as IPhones and Droids are perfect for providing canvassers their walk list. Using application tools provided by the likes of MapQuest, these lists can be presented as markers on a map with optimized, or most efficient, routes. In addition, by using the inbuilt GPS on most smartphones, users can know their current location and collect data at that location. So a voters response can be captured on a smartphone dynamically, tied to that location and uploaded to a centralized database.

Historically, spreadsheets have been the main stay of political campaign organizing. Those days will soon be gone. Data centrally stored, updated from the field dynamically using mobile devices and from campaign headquarters will revolutionize politics. New software applications will become available for use on traditional PC’s and mobile devices which will tap into this data and allow questions to be answered or viewed quickly; the concentrations of likely voters or supporters for more efficient targeting, identifying locations for events, planning and moving collateral, generating and viewing walk-lists, and plotting sign locations. Interactive maps will prove important in visualizing much of this data. Field Directors will be able to almost instantly see the progress of sign placement operations, volunteer recruitment, and literature distribution. They will also be able to see the location of field workers while they are interacting with voters and view responses in real time. Unit and district chairs could use these systems for mass e-mails, the content being related to the voters district or location. Task lists could be created and posted for party or campaign employees, allowing them to record their progress. These updates would be instantly accessible to managers anywhere.

These types of system will dramatically improve efficiency, and reduce or remove redundant processes. They will provide a key edge over opponents. Enabling a dramatic enlargement of membership.

To summarize some of the areas impacted by these new systems which utilize mobile applications:

  • Planning – voting lists, election boundaries, location (possible and actual) and relocation of collateral (signs, literature)
  • Coordination – unit rosters, party and campaign offices, events
  • Canvassing – walk list, data collection

Mobile GIS Maps & Politics

Mobile devices, as we have said, will be increasingly key to political campaigns. Viewing maps, boundaries, and voter locations on a smartphone or mobile tablets will be crucial to field workers. As will recording data while in the field. We have already mentioned a few, but we can imagine a range of different questions we want answered and displayed on a map:

  • Show me an optimized route of my walk list
  • Display registered voter data on a map by definable region
  • Search and display by a set of criteria – Show all 2008 Primary Voters
  • Search, filter and display – Show 2008 Primary Voters who voted in the last 3 elections or show only hard democrats
  • Spatial query – Selecting a group of voters, by drawing a square on the map, will provide a voter summary. Maybe the number of voters selected, average distance between voters, total number of hard Republicans in this group, and number of perfect voters.

There are a range of options and tools we can use for maps in politics. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) offer tools which will help manage, organize, search, query and display campaign data. MapQuest offer both PC focused and mobile optimized tools ideal for political campaigns.

The Use of GIS in Politics

We have discussed the querying and display of campaign data. Often, at least in a GIS, this would involve either shapefiles or ArcGIS endpoints (ArcGIS from ESRI is the most popular GIS spatial server). These both are spatial data sources which contain features (voters and their point location), and attributes (a voters party allegiance for example). Rendering or displaying a shapefile or ArcGIS endpoint adds a layer to the map. Thus we can add points to the map which represent voters. Click on a point and the attributes of that voter are displayed. Querying is also possible against these spatial data sources; show me all hard Republican voters in a certain zip code.

We can extend this to editing and updating. Thus it is quite possible to update our spatial data sources using a mobile device. Maybe a voter has switched allegiances and is no longer a democrat; update that voters attributes on your smartphone which updates the central data store. Maybe a new area of homes has been built and voters here need adding to the data store. Again this can all be done by field workers using their mobile devices.

ESRI are the largest provider of GIS software in the world. Their flagship ArcGIS product offers a complete GIS solution, both for desktop and networked GIS. Moblie ArcGIS has become increasingly important. WebMapSolutions have been building a sample viewer which demonstrates some of the mobile functionality of ArcGIS. The video below shows the mobile GIS app running on an IPad:

Mobile ArcGIS running on an IPad

MapQuest and Politics

MapQuest are well known for routing and traffic maps, but they offer a plethora of other services. We are in the process of building a new mobile application which demonstrates some of the capabilities of mobile MapQuest. The functionality will include:

  • Walk List
  • Optimized Walk List Route
  • Sign placement and traffic flow
  • Data entry using device GPS
  • Query – map markers showing voters filtered by specific criteria

A video of this application will be posted here in due course.

Online & Offline Mobile GIS Maps & Politics

Less common in urban areas, but mobile devices may sometimes lack Wi-Fi connectivity. This means data cannot be transferred to and from the device. Maybe downloaded map data showing the location of the next voter on the walk list, or voter interview data uploaded to the central server. It is now possible to store data directly on the device. So complete walk lists routes can be downloaded while still online, and used with or without Wi-Fi connectivity. Similarly a light weight database on the mobile device can be used to store data recorded at a location, for later upload when back in Wi-Fi range. The video below shows online and offline map usage on an Android smartphone. The base map tiles are stored on the device, as is a shapefile of Utah counties. The latter could just as easily be voter points or election boundaries.

Mobile GIS Online and Offline

Existing Political Software Systems and The New Mobile Paradigm

Existing, lets call them legacy, political software systems are slow and clunky. Mapping capabilities are limited. As already mentioned, decisions are still often made with the help of spreadsheets. Field workers rely on printed sheets, phones and notepads for organization and data gathering. In short, current software applications used for political campaigns are inadequate.

Existing systems can be dramatically improved. Mobile applications will be a particularly key component. Centralizing data and extending, maybe rewriting, existing software applications to allow easier management, querying and visualization of this data will be crucial. Mobile applications in politics will provide both access to the data while in the field (no more pens, papers and printed maps), and the ability to edit and add new data. Mobiles provide up to date information dynamically; walk lists, routing, tracking field workers. They also allow much of what was done in the office, to now be done done in the field. So querying by voter attributes using a fixed distance from your current location. And designing your canvassing around these dynamic queries. Applications written for PC’s will provide advanced functionality and management of both the data and ultimately the campaign.

Maps will be ever more important for displaying much of the data both in the office and in the field using mobiles.

Mobile Politics Application Development

So how would you build such a system? There are a number of proprietary and open source content management and constituent relationship management solutions. Joomla and CivicCRM are two excellent open source options. These can serve as the central system, PC based work can utilize the modules available in these types of frameworks. The key mobile and mapping portions of this picture will need custom development. These would be integrated into the central system. So whether it be leveraging the power of MapQuest or a full GIS, these could be integrated into the PC based system, and custom built for mobile.

As a mobile GIS application development company we specialize in these types of integrations. Our focus is Web and mobile application development, with a particular emphasis on location based services (LBS), mobile GIS and maps. Mobile will be very important to the upcoming election cycle. Political campaigns can now leverage mobile to make faster better decisions. We can help build or integrate both mobile and maps into any political campaign.

Q&A – Mobile App Development Planning

Friday, October 14th, 2011

Q. We want to build a mobile application. Where should we begin?

Before jumping in, first get a better understanding of mobile. That does not mean trying to understand the intricacies of the technology. But a good general picture of this still confusing mobile world will be a big help in the long term?

Q: I’ve tried surfing the Web to learn more about mobile, but remain confused. Is there a good source I can go to which explains in simple terms mobile and mobile application development?

Many Web mobile articles are too technical. Bu it is worth spending time looking for good introductory articles. Talking to mobile application development companies can also be a good idea. Sales and marketing people may be helpful. Better would be to talk to an actual developer or individual with a technical background. That can be somewhat daunting. But often technical folk can help demystify things. But be warned, steer them clear of technical jargon. Some companies offer free initial consultations. We’ve trained our technical staff to make consultations jargon free. We can certainly answer your questions. But don’t stop with us, talk to others. Build your knowledge base, so you have a clear understanding of all your options.

Q: Ok, I’ve spoken to a number of companies, and have a good idea of the mobile landscape. I understand I have the option of a mobile Web application or an installed mobile application. Tell us more?

A mobile Web application is like any Web application you can access from your PC. It is just optimized for mobile. When I say optimized I mean it has a simpler design (mobile screens are smaller) and built for finger interaction (as against mouse). Most people are looking for cross platform mobile Web apps, or an application which runs on all mobile browsers. That means in terms of development choices Flash, Flex, Silverlight are out. HTML5/Javascript is best choice.

Installed applications are those downloaded from the Apple App Store and Android Market. To have an application built you have two options; a native app or hybird. So for Apple a native app would be written in Objective C. Will that same app run on an Android device. Yes but only if you write it in a different language. Step up hybrid apps. These you write once and deploy to all devices. Application written in Adobe mobile AIR are hybrid. Are there advantages one over the other? Some, but maybe not enough to incur the cost of multiple native apps.

Q. Which is better an installed or mobile Web application?

That depends (you knew I would say that). Web apps are easier to distribute, just provide a URL and bingo. Write the mobile web app in HTML5/javascript and you have a cross platform solution. But try to store an image taken with a camera, and you are out of luck. Hybrid apps are available through an app store. You can charge for every download. Reaching deeper into the guts of the device, to store data in a local database is easy. Just a few examples of strenths and weaknesses. Everything depends on the apps functionality and the business model you might have in place.

Q. Can you convert a mobile (Javascript) Web application to an installed app?

Yes you can use PhoneGap. Now owned by Adobe who have promised to keep it open source.

Q: Your company specialize in building location focused mobile applications, does that mean you build mapping applications?

Certainly maps are a part of what we do. But our real focus is location. Answering questions like what or who is near me.

On the mapping side we’ve partnered with MapQuest to provide cross platform routing, traffic and local search mobile capabilities. We also work closely with ESRI to provide mobile GIS solutions using their ArcGIS product. In fact we have just launched GeoMobile for ArcGIS, a free mobile ArcGIS viewer.

But we define ourselves by location. Mobile devices have on-board GPS, so at any time the device can report where it is. That means an application running on the devices can reach out to Foursquare, Yelp or any other social networking company which shares their data. Passing current location to these provider will allow a mobile application to list data they can provide; people nearby, Mexican restaurants within 5 miles etc. We have been very involved with building apps focused on data collection by location. Field workers on site often need to collect data and link that to the collection point, surveyors, field repair crews, field technicians to name a few. Storing this data in a central computer extremely valuable and very efficient.

Q: Mobiles are still relatively new, mobile application development is both complicated and expensive. We will hold off on developing mobile apps, do you think we are being sensible?

Don’t be scared of mobile. For development the smoke is clearing. New developments by Adobe and HTML5 have helped provide less complex, simpler solutions. Mobile may well be the future of networked computing. Be careful not to be left behind.

Q. How much will a mobile application cost me to build?

Ah, the question we all want answered. Mobile app development continues to come at a cost premium. This will change with time. Depending on where you are, expect to pay in excess of $100 hr. Remember the old adage “if you pay peanuts you will get monkeys”. Hiring top development companies is what you should targeting. They don’t need to be big, but need strength and depth of experience and skills.

The development process usually looks like this:

  • Initial consultation – idea sharing
  • Planning – wireframe and architecture design
  • Design – application look and feel
  • Coding – let the nerds at it
  • Testing
  • Delivery

Q. How can we reach you?

You can reach us on 801-733-0723 or email

Mobiles & Field Data Collection

Friday, September 9th, 2011

Recently we’ve had considerable interest in mobile application development based around check-in and mobile data collection. Facility management companies, surveyors, multi-level marketing, insurance claims, pipeline companies, water utilities; all have field workers who would benefit from mobile applications. Not only checking in to work sites, but keeping a record of the work done; notes, pictures, video, even voice records. To help with our discussions with these potential clients, we put together a demo which pulls together much of this proposed functionality. We have included in this article both screen shots of the key functionality in the demo, plus a video of the actual application.

A key challenge of building the demo was finding a suitable mobile application tool set. Initially we discussed using a combination of SimpleGeo with a mapping API. But MapQuest came to the rescue with their new Flash mobile tool set. Not only do they provide routing and traffic data, but local search, and a range of other functionality all easily integrated with the map.

Mobile Worker Data Collection Application – Opening Screen

The opening screen in the application shows the base functionality. Each view or tool is listed as a selectable image. At any point a user can open the map to see their current location. This changes as the user moves. As we will discuss, the map is also utilised by other tools in the application.

SmartPhone MapQuest Data Collection Application

Figure 1 – SmartPhone MapQuest Data Collection Application

Mobile Worker Data Collection Application – Directions Screen

Let’s imagine a potential scenario. A field worker starts each day by opening a mobile application such as the one we are describing here. They want to start by seeing the days calls and an optimised route to these calls, mapped out for them. In Figure 2 we show a single source and destination mapped. MapQuest also allow for multiple source-destinations to be entered and displayed. At any point in the day the user can open this tool and see on the map the location of their next call.

SmartPhone MapQuest Directions View

Figure 2 – SmartPhone MapQuest Directions View

Mobile Worker Data Collection Application – Check-In Screen

Next, the worker arrives at the first call and wishes to check-in. Figure 3 shows the check-in screen. There are two options shown. First a check-in by venue; so a field technician about to fix the air conditioning in a specific 7-11, for example. In the demo the user would type in the address, this could just as easily be a selection from a list of venues nearby. The second option is a check-in by current location or lat/long. Maybe a surveyor wishing to record, or check-in at a particular point. The check-in process would send name, id, location and time to the company server. A check-out would similarly record similar data centrally.

SmartPhone MapQuest Check-In View

Figure 3 – SmartPhone MapQuest Check-In View

Mobile Worker Data Collection Application – Local Search Screen

At any point in the day a field worker might wish to do a local search. A search for venues, points of interest, maybe people within a certain distance of a location. The MapQuest api offers many possibilities for these types of searches. In Figure 4 and Figure 8, we show a simple venue search within a certain radius of either current location or from a specific address.

SmartPhone MapQuest Search View

Figure 4 – SmartPhone MapQuest Search View

Mobile Worker Data Collection Application – GeoCoder Screen

A geocoder is a useful tool. In Figure 5 we show how users can type in an address, and use MapQuest to add a marker to the map of that location.

SmartPhone MapQuest GeoCoder View

Figure 5 – SmartPhone MapQuest GeoCoder View

Mobile Worker Data Collection Application – Data Screen

Data collection is often an important part of a field workers job. Surveyors, service technicians, pipeline inspectors are all recording data while in the field. Mobile applications are perfect both for recording and storing location based data – notes, pictures, voice records, video. They are also ideal for reviewing historic data. Let’s imagine a pipeline inspectors who on August 1, 2011 inspected a section of pipeline. He records what he sees using this mobile application. A field engineer, using the same application, views this data and makes appropriate repairs. A second inspection done on September 1, 2011 again using the mobile application, to view images and notes made a month before and by the field engineer, shows the work was completed successfully. This is a very real work flow.

Figure 6 shows the applications data screen. The search option makes a request to the company server for past data records. The search could be done by date, location or any number of other criteria.

SmartPhone MapQuest Data View

Figure 6 – SmartPhone MapQuest Data View 1

Figure 7 shows the summary data input view. So this is a summary of the data recorded by the field worker prior to storage. The camera on a mobile device can be used to attach photos or video to the work order. Mobile devices also have voice recorders. Notes can also be included in the data stored. The data itself can be attached to a check-out, or stored locally on the mobile device, maybe for later upload to a central company server.

SmartPhone MapQuest Data View

Figure 7 – SmartPhone MapQuest Data View 2

Mobile Worker Data Collection Application Video

See the application being demo’d in this video.


MapQuest have an excellent new set of mobile tools. The application discussed in this article is based on input from potential client. Those who have seen the application have been excited by the possibilities. When clients can see live demos of mobile solutions it often elicits new thinking and ideas. As mobile application developers the ideas which come from these discussions and demos are why we love what we do.

WebMapSolutions are a Utah mobile application development company. Specializing in locations based services (LBS), GIS and mapping applications. For more information contact

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