GIS (And More) in the Palm of Your Hand
April 2, 2012
One thing we must accept is that change happens a lot faster than it used to. The tools of the trade are evolving so rapidly it is difficult to track them, let alone develop proficiency using them. That in itself is not in any way unusual. Methods and tactics have historically lagged behind development. And that is consistent with our inherent apprehension about change.
But apprehension aside, some of us will forge ever onward into each “Brave New World” as it emerges. One of the things that has changed dramatically in the “digital age” is the concept of economies of scale. Way back in the “paper age,” which arguably ended with the 20th century, everything was someplace--physically, that is. Those who could master where all of the “someplaces” were located were considered the information managers of their era.
The Internet and its derivatives turned all of that on its head. You no longer needed to accrue vast physical libraries or travel to public repositories of data, or at least not as much as in the past. You could do much of that from your desktop. Then came WiFi, and you could take your virtual desktop wherever you went. But just like carrying reams of paper in a time gone by, even that could get a little cumbersome.
Enter the mobile universe.
The power now contained in a mobile device, such as an iPhone or iPod Touch, is truly amazing. In the case of the iPod Touch, which runs from $200 to $400 depending on memory and processor size, I can check traffic conditions and plan my route in a matter of seconds. Although the iPod Touch is not a GPS receiver itself, it can get your location by accessing the server your device is connected to.
The iPod Touch uses the powerful Safari browser. With Safari, you can surf the same websites you typically use for research. But Safari is an Apple-based browser, and it’s much less susceptible to Internet viruses, cookies and spyware than other browsers.
The iPod Touch is primarily a viewing device. Data collection is, to say the least, a challenge with these small, mobile devices. But it isn’t impossible. The “Notes” utility supports alpha-numeric text entry with the system’s virtual (QWERTY) keypad. The keypad is invoked automatically for all apps that require input from the user. Some models have cameras and high-definition video recorders.
Like all Apple devices, the iPod Touch stores and manages your information on the iCloud. The iCloud is described as a “hard drive in the sky.” It is basically 5 GB of free web storage for your files, with more storage available for a fee. It works with the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch, and it automatically syncs all of your files to all of your devices.
As the name iCloud implies, working with this class of mobile device is working in the “cloud.” Certainly this technology is a work in progress at the moment, but there is little doubt about what direction the technology is headed. You can also sync these devices to a laptop using the free application (more about that later). But the best way to actually exchange files in many cases is through email.
Though these pocket devices come with data handling limitations, these are often offset by the speed of data retrieval. The iPod Touch can boot up cold and launch Google in less than 10 seconds. In that regard, it often “liberates” me from carrying my laptop around.
I could not even begin to list the catalog of apps that are available in the App Store; there are numerous apps that are useful. Many are free, but as you might suspect, the more sophisticated and specialized the app is, the higher the price. The App Store is operated by iTunes, so in order to download an app to your device, you need to create an account. Your iTunes account is also what you utilize to manage your data.
Working with apps on mobile devices such as the iPod or a smartphone is generally intuitive for those who have seen the PC versions of most of the apps, but there are some subtle differences. Apple has an online tutorial for their devices. Esri and other companies also provide free online training for most of the apps they have developed for mobile GIS.
There are many useful apps for surveyors. Some of these include:
• ArcGIS Mobile Version 2.0.2: With this application the user can perform a variety of tasks, such as collecting and updating GIS features, attaching photos and videos to features, finding places and addresses, querying map layers and data, measuring lines and areas, and more.
• Autodesk Mobile Sketchbook: This is a very powerful little app. The free version is limited, but the full version supports import and export, as well as uploading capability. It is a sketching program, not a drafting application.
• iBookstore: Most of these devices are also readers. There are currently no surveying and mapping texts or periodicals on this app, but there are some useful titles for associated research.
These apps are also available for the iPhone and iPad. Each of those devices has its own attractive features. With the iPhone, you get the GPS features of the iPod Touch, as well as phone capabilities. The iPad comes in several models. It offers larger screens and more capability to add peripheral devices. All of these powerful devices make interactive mobile GIS readily available to the end user.
Let me finish up with this “dirty little secret.” I confess, I did not set out looking for a pocket GIS device; I began looking for a good MP3 player. As technology keeps changing, with CDs slowly going the way of cassette tapes, I am working to convert my music library to iTunes. Now I can listen to my favorite music, send and receive messages and look at map data anywhere I have a connection--all on a device that fits in my shirt pocket. In Starbucks, I can even use the device to pay for my coffee. There’s an app for that, too.