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Mobile devices will soon make PC’s redundant. Location based data is about to move from the margins, to the core of many user applications. Bold statements, but should we believe the hype?

Looking back, the GIS and location based sectors were very much a niche. MapQuest and later Google taking advantage of the Web, helped broaden the availability, appeal and usefulness of maps. Slippy maps, free data and a plethora of new (free) tools, spawned a new breed of Web based location focused applications. Route finding, traffic data, locating points of interest, and traditional GIS could all be done on the Web. The GeoWeb was upon us; a revolution of availability.

But what of mobile devices; they offer portability, instant Internet access, geo-location and simple more intuitive interaction as key benefits. In this article we will discuss mobile, with a particular focus on the location based sector.

The Mobile Market in 2011

Mobile remains a confusing market place. A turf war is being waged between rival hardware and software companies. A multitude of new devices have been launched in the last 6 months. Both smartphones and tablets of varying size and spec. Disagreements continue over software. The recent spat between Adobe and Apple over the Flash player, being but one notable example. Many companies looking to develop mobile solutions have remained cautiously on the sidelines.

But slowly the dust is clearing. For platforms; Android, Apple, Blackberry and Windows dominate. Now, no longer is there the need to build multiple versions of an application for each platform. A single code base which can run across mobile platforms is today a reality, thanks to HTML 5 for the mobile Web and installed hybrid apps built with Adobe AIR.

Mobile Applications

There are two ways to access applications on a mobile device. The first is to simply fire up the mobile Web browser and load a Web application. Existing Web sites are designed for mouse interaction. Mobile interaction is with the finger, thus most Web sites need to be optimised for the mobile Web. This usually means a rework of both design and functionality. Restrictions by Apple mean that cross platform Web solutions are limited to HTML5/Javascript. Sites built with Flash, Flex and Silverlight are not accessible on the IPhone or IPad.

Installed applications are the second type accessible on mobiles. These can be downloaded from the various app stores. Many are written in so called native languages; Objective C for Apples IOS, Java for Android etc. Native languages are specific for a platform, meaning multiple versions of the same app need be developed for cross platform operation. The recent launch of mobile AIR by Adobe, means that so called hybrid apps can be written which run across all platforms.

Mobiles and the Location Sector

Portability and resulting location change are key reasons for the popularity of mobiles. Location becomes a key piece of this new computing universe. The location based sector should be well positioned to provide the tools for this new universe. Geo-location and context are important. Geo-location, tracks current GPS location. It has spawned a new location based services (LBS) sector. The likes of Foursquare, FaceBook and Yelp are allowing mobile users to discover who and what are near them. Extend that to geospatial and users can start any GIS query and discovery from their current location. Routing, traffic and local search provided by MapQuest become more relevant and useful in the field.

Context is more subtle, but provides a deeper understanding of data. GIS has been traditionally used in an office or home. Taking these GIS applications into the field and running them on a mobile device, dramatically improves insight.

Mobile Hardware and Application Development

The mobile market is made up of smart phones and tablets. Historically dominated by the IPhone and iPad, new launches by other manufacturers have started to challenge Apples preeminence. Mobile device screen size is an important application development and design consideration. Screen sizes range from the 2.6″ HP Veer, through the 3.5″ IPhone, and 9.7″ IPad to the 10.1″ Samsung Galaxy Tab. An application designed for a tablet will not necessarily work well on a smart phone and vice-versa. Applications built for a tablet can be richer and more complex than those designed for smart phones. The smart phone is ideal for quick snapshots of information. These differences are best illustrated with two examples.

Mobile ArcGIS Viewer for the Tablet

There are a number of excellent Web based ArcGIS viewers on the market. One of the more notable is the ESRI Flex Viewer. This provides a rich GIS user experience. But, given its architecture, and the fact it is written in Flex, it will not run on any Apple device. This posed an interesting problem; can a viewer of this type be run on a mobile device. We took some of the modules which make up the ESRI Flex viewer and started work on integrating them into a mobile viewer. Using mobile Adobe Air, we found we could modify the base module code and run it across all platforms. Figure 1 shows the final application interface.

Mobile ArcGIS header

Figure 1 – Mobile ArcGIS Viewer

Once built, we started testing the application across devices. It soon became clear, that even on the largest smart phone, that this was a viewer best accessed on a tablet. The tools were far harder to use on the smart phone, and subtle details in the map hard to see. The free application is now available for Apple, Android and Blackberry.

Enterprise Mobile Check-In Application for the Smart Phone

Mobile check-In has become very popular in marketing and advertising. Florian Fischer discussed this phenomenon in Issue 5 of GeoInformatics. To date this has been a consumer focused phenomena. But enterprises are now looking at the potential use of the check-in. Facility management companies, surveyors, multi-level marketing, insurance claims, pipeline companies, water utilities; all have field workers who would benefit from this type of mobile application. Not only checking in to work sites, but keeping a record of the work done; notes, pictures, video, even voice records. Using the new Flash tools from MapQuest, we went ahead and built an application which provided this functionality. Figure 2 shows the home screen of the application.

Enterprise Mobile Check-In Application Home Page

Figure 2 – Enterprise Mobile Check-In Application Home Screen

Not only does the application include check-in and data collection, but routing, local search and a geo-coder. Functionality of the application is tied to either a point of interest or GPS location. The application allows a field worker start the day by viewing an optimized route of the day’s calls. On arrival at each call, the user can use the check-in/out screen to register job location and provide data relating to the call, see Figure 3.

Enterprise Mobile Check-In Application Check-In

Figure 3 – Check-In/Out and Data Collection

The local search and geocoder provide additional tools for discovering who or what is nearby and address search capabilities respectively.

Enterprise Mobile Check-In Application Search

Figure 4 – Directions and Local Search

A link to a video showing the application is provided at the end of the article. This application was found to be ideal for a smart phone. It provides snapshots of information regarding routing and local data. Check-in and data collection are simple interactions. And portability of the smart phone, makes it easy for field workers to both carry and use.

The new mobile revolution offers exciting opportunities for the location based sector. The combination of geo-location and context provides the potential to extend existing location focused applications. It also opens the way for new, innovative applications. Maybe most importantly it offers the possibility of integrating with a wide range of other applications.

The ArcGIS viewer is now available in each of the respective online mobile app stores:

Apple ITunes Store- ArcGIS Viewer
Android Market – ArcGIS Viewer
BlackBerry App World – ArcGIS Viewer

WebMapSolutions are Utah mobile application developers. The company specialises in building locations based services (LBS), GIS and mapping applications. If you are looking to build a mobile solution, or just need a better understanding of the mobile sector, contact: [email protected]

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