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Mobile Geospatial Solutions – Transforming the Work Place

Friday, March 2nd, 2012


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.

Summary

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 rory@webmapsolutions.com

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