In the wake of several natural and man-made disasters in the past few years, businesses and governments are demanding information that will allow them to mitigate their financial risks, respond faster and more efficiently to disasters, and prepare more effectively for the future. An organization’s ability to provide actionable information depends on its geographic information system (GIS)-the primary mapping and analysis instrument for land assessment, land survey research, land planning and development. However, many of the investments that have been made in these systems are being wasted because the geospatial assets that are critical to helping field workers are locked away in complex systems that require a GIS expert to use. Stockpiles of data that can produce some of the world’s most advanced maps and images sit idle, waiting to be accessed by a handful of GIS analysts, and additional data collected by surveyors and other professionals remain underutilized.
As the financial impact of natural and man-made disasters increases, greater emphasis is being placed on ensuring that these geospatial assets can be more easily accessed and used by anyone who needs to view, annotate and configure maps and images in order to make real-time decisions. One way to achieve this goal is by extending traditional GIS output to georeferenced PDFs or geoPDFs. Last summer, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) converted its primary base series quadrangle maps to geoPDFs and made them available online to promote wider adoption and more commercial use of this mapping format. USGS now averages 60,000 downloads of its quads each month compared to fewer than 4,000 per month with its previous system. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Topographic Engineering Center has also begun to use geoPDFs as a way to distribute National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) standard map products for demand-based replication, and other organizations are also embracing this new mapping option.
As field personnel gain greater access to geospatial information, they are seeking new ways to streamline data collection and collaboration using modern tools and techniques. Just as users have adopted mobile technology in their personal lives, surveyors increasingly have begun using hand-held computers and smartphones-especially devices that embrace third-generation (3G) technology and GPS capabilities-to gather data in the field and collaborate with colleagues in real time.
The Evolution of Mobile Technology
As smartphone manufacturers like Apple and Nokia make rapid advances in technology, GIS software developers are following suit and delivering mobile software solutions that enable non-GIS users to interact and collaborate with geospatial data that was once only available to those with knowledge of complex GIS systems. New software solutions help optimize GIS data for performance and portability, provide an easy-to-use format for collaboration and enable more-efficient business processes for capturing, sharing and reusing the GIS data.
Another process that is undergoing significant change is the ability for field personnel to receive up-to-date information from GIS operations. The ability to access information databases through the Internet or through mobile database connectivity has already started to emerge. In-office GIS staff can now dynamically share content with field personnel in real time through a Web-based solution in the form of multimedia, documents or maps. Users can define a specific geographic area of interest (AOI) and choose content available within that AOI to create and export a collection or “book” of maps and documents that are georeferenced in a PDF format and can be easily analyzed and edited. This technology is streamlining workflow processes during data collection.
The Fit for Mobile
After any disaster, field crews need access to maps, images and details of the area both before and after the incident to document evidence of damage and perform further assessments. In a traditional approach, surveyors collect data and take notes by hand or on a laptop computer, and these resources are e-mailed separately or brought into a local office to be assembled and processed by the appropriate personnel in a labor-intensive and time-consuming process.
Mobile GIS solutions can make this process easier while also improving collaboration between office personnel and field crews. For example, disaster assessment teams can be provided with a mobile-ready map book containing maps and images of the impacted area along with an assessment form for digitally recording data and notes. The PDF maps might consist of a set of half-mile-square map sheets displaying the parcel lines of each property along with streets, street names and major land-based features. The map book could contain an index map with hyperlinks to the map sheets and additional hyperlinks from each map sheet to its adjacent sheets. The assessment form could contain fields for specific information about the inspection, the property, the nature and extent of the damage, and other relevant details.
Field personnel could use the GPS tracking function of their smartphones or hand-held computers to pinpoint their exact position before beginning data collection. In addition to filling out the form digitally, surveyors could use the phones to collect photographs of the disaster. If additional information was needed, surveyors could add this information in the free-form notes area of the form or record audio notes that would be digitally attached to the other files.
Each inspection would create a single data packet for that property that could be electronically shared with peers in the field and GIS analysts in the office in real time. At the end of an inspection shift, users could export their data by e-mailing the completed packets to a command post. These e-mails could be reviewed by individuals who are actively documenting and assessing the damage, guiding field personnel and business leaders on next steps, and loading the newly collected data into the appropriate position in the GIS database for future use. The iterative functionality available in a mobile solution aids in decision making and makes the process faster and more fluid.
Advances in mobile technology are changing the way organizations equip their surveying and mapping professionals-essentially transforming people into remote data sensors. These capabilities can have a dramatic impact on workforce efficiency and effectiveness and will likely force a shift in established business models. Ultimately, the real-time supplemental data that are collected through mobile applications will serve as valuable assets in a world where geospatial information is in high demand.