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Reflections on CalGIS 2012 & Mobile GIS

Monday, April 16th, 2012


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.

(more…)

A Review of the Mobile Market in 2011

Monday, December 5th, 2011

Overall Mobile Trends in 2011

Mobile in 2011 has been very much a case of hurry up and wait. Immature is maybe a better way to put it. The market remains consumer focused. Business’ have largely sat on the sidelines. Mobile software innovation has been somewhat limited, with too many copycat ideas; “I want to build a site like Foursquare”. Games continue to dominate. On the hardware front, things are evolving. Tablets were the most hyped item in 2011. Things have been hit and miss here. Notable misses include: the Blackberry Playbook (great platform but the screen is too small), the various split screen releases, and the lack of 3G on many tablets. The IPad2 and Galaxy stand out as hits. Smartphones have evolved. Releases like the Samsung Infuse with large 4.5″ high resolution screens, have vastly improved the user experience.

To summarise our overall thoughts:

1) Mobile is still a consumer focused market, with social networking etc
2) As in the early days of the Internet, business adoption has been slow.
3) Mobile remains a confusing marketplace; hardware and software/platform wars continue.
4) Key business applications of mobile include improving mobile worker productivity, improved real time decision making, email, inventory/warehouse management, field sales force, asset management.
5) Mobile devices remain physically fragile. Rugged cases and more rugged actual devices will reduce concerns.
6) Overall 2011 usage survey – According to a Guardian survey, 84% of tablet owners play games, ahead of even searching for information (78%), emailing (74%) and reading the news (61%). Tablets are predominantly domestic devices, with 82% of people primarily using their tablets at home, versus 11% who say they are used primarily on the go, and 7% who said at work. 28% of respondents said their tablet is now their primary computer, while 43% said they spend more time using their tablet than they do their desktop or laptop computer. The most popular smartphones apps are games, weather, maps, social networking, music, and news.

Businesses are looking at portions of enterprise apps being mobilized. Much of this is focused on 2012, and a maturing mobile market. B2C enablers will flourish as mobile web continues to gain importance as a channel. B2B will remain challenging.

Mobile GIS, LBS & Map Development Tools in 2011

Adobe have been one of the key development tool providers to get behind the mobile revolution. With their increasing focus on mobile AIR for installed mobile applications, and support for HTML5 for mobile web apps. Adobe are one of the companies leading the mobile charge. Many of the major mapping, spatial and location focused companies have turned their attention to mobile. ESRI have launched a number of mobile products to support their ArcGIS flagship. The free mobile app released to the Apple and Android markets, allows users to leverage ArcGIS online to visualize their spatial data. MapQuest have made some very interesting recent announcements, with a new mobile web release (m.mapquest.com), their MQVibe product (mqvibe.com) and release of their mobile Flash api. They provide a comprehensive array of mobile solutions. In the open source world Openlayers is turning its attention to mobile (http://trac.osgeo.org/openlayers/wiki/mobile). Mobile web tools are proliferating. It will be interesting to to test OpenLayers mobile as an installed application using Phonegap. A number of the newer location based service companies, such as Foursquare and SimpleGeo, have opend their apis. Making it possible, for example, to pass a lat/long or current location, and get back a list of venues nearby.

Mobile Software Trends in 2011

The year started with the dominance of the Apple IOS mobile platform. This maintained the demand for Objective-C developers; the native language of IOS. The steady growth in popularity of devices running the Android platform over the year, has seen more demand for Java mobile apps. Apple have continued to throw their weight around, maintaining their stance on preventing third party plug ins to be included in any IOS browser. Effectively stymieing Adobes Flash Player and Microsoft’s Silverlight. The growth of mobile cross browser solutions has been one of the biggest changes this year. For installed applications, Adobe have put their weight behind mobile Adobe AIR. On the Web HTML5/Javascript seems the emerging favored choice. Indeed at their end of year MAX show, Adobe threw in the towel on Flex and Flash (one can speculate in large part due to the Apple plug-in decision). Pushing HTML5 and mobile Adobe AIR. They even went as far as to buy PhoneGap, a technology to convert a web HTML5 mobile app to one which is installable. Then to open source the product, under the Apache license. We are a long way from seeing the end of PC’s, but should that day come so ends the Flash Player. Some of Adobes end of year decisions, makes one wonder whether they have seen the writing on the wall.

Mobile App Development in 2011 – Many Challenges

For developers there have been both opportunities and challenges. The maturing of HTML5, release of Adobe AIR for mobile, and opening of Android market (considerably reducing the pain of distributing mobile apps) have improved the life of mobile developers. Listing some of the challenges:

1) Project issues – changes in spec/scope creep, incomplete specs, and app complexity,
2) Distribution & update issues – multiple markets (Apple. Android, Blackberry), submission policy too long (particularly Apple’s), painful certificate process (again particularly applicable to Apple), expensive and long distribution.
3) Other issues – security, back-end integration, mobile web is a different beast to PC web must design accordingly (UI/work flow)

How are the Public and Private sectors using Mobiles?

Looking back on our year as a company we have had many mobile application development conversations. Ambitious entrepreneurs have formed at least half of these inquiries. Those with good ideas, and limited budgets, looking to better understand how to make these ideas a reality. We expected more media driven ideas; social media apps for example. Certainly there were plenty, but fewer then we expected. Which was a relief. Our real interest is larger scale enterprise mobile application development. Looking for better ways to improve enterprise efficiency using mobile. Both replacing and extending existing software processes. Long term mobile has the potential to change many of the processes within the enterprise. But, as was the case with the Internet, currently only small steps are being taken. We did notice a trend over the year, with more inquiries from larger enterprises. Many of these conversations were informational. But the trend was encouraging and bodes well for 2012. Key application discussions have been around data collection in the field and linking that to GPS location, dynamic data visualisation (GIS layers, routes, traffic), data editing, local search (what is near me). Below is a list of some of the industries/sectors we were approached by in 2011:

a) Forest service – Looking into use of mobile email and testing for GPS accuracy
b) Political campaigns
c) Engineering
d) Agriculture
e) Facility management
f) Outdoor recreation
g) Medicine – self diagnosis and referral
h) Car dealerships
i) Police & Parking meters officer IT providers
j) Surveying
k) Forest management
l) Pipeline, water, transportation

Reflections on WebMapSolutions 2011 Mobile Business Strategy

Just as an aside from general discussions. We thought readers might be interested in how mobile application development companies like ours fared in 2011.

The PC based Web continues to dominate our activities. We’ve put much emphasis on mobile, since we feel this is where much of application development will be focused. But, as we have indicated above, we have found enterprise adoption slower than expected. From a business perspective our mobile strategy has been as follows:

1) Position the company as a mobile application development company focused on location; GIS, maps and location based services (LBS).
2) Write an very active blog on mobile apps and mobile app development.
3) Publish articles. We have has a number of articles published in leading geo and industry specific magazines, in the US and Europe.
4) Build partnerships with key companies – MapQuest, ESRI, Adobe.
5) Write a plethora of demo apps (with supporting videos for marketing) which show the capabilities of online and offline location based mobile apps.
6) Launch GeoMobile for ArcGIS, a free mobile app into the Apple and Android app stores.
7) Provide free application code.
8) Making available free mobile and development planning guides.

It is still hard to gauge the success of this strategy. Our blog has caused a noticeable uptick in Web traffic. Our Web site traffic has changed from 20 daily visits to over 150. Positioning ourselves as a location focused mobile app development company is in may ways redundant. Since most if not all mobile apps will take advantage of GPS and location. But we have had comments from potential clients that they were looking specifically for mobile location app experts. We have mixed feelings about the effectiveness of the free mobile app. The fact it is free and user configurable maybe problematic. But in each mobile store the mobile app gets a 4 star rating which we take a positive. Its purpose was simply to demonstrate the potential capabilities of a cross platform mobile GIS application. The demos have proven very powerful. Every mobile contract we have signed this year has been a direct result of a demo. Our partnerships we see as long term relations. We are particularly excited about our MapQuest and ESRI partnerships. Article writing we hope helps raises our profile as industry experts in mobile application development. We are now writing regular columns in two high circulation magazines.

With a core group, within the company, who can advise and consult with clients on their mobile strategy. And a network of highly skilled developers. We feel well positioned for what we expect to be a busy 2012.

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.

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