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Mobile is new. Mobile is exciting. It’s confusing and changing rapidly. And yet one day we may well wonder how we ever managed to use a GIS on a non-mobile device. Mobile GIS is a transforming experience. Not only does it provide context, but analysis and visualization based on current location.

A Brief History of GIS

Back in the early 90’s and before, GIS was a desktop application. The bastion of spatial nerds. The migration of GIS from the desktop to the Web began at the end of that decade. ESRI released MapObject IMS followed by ArcIMS. In 2005 Google introduced slippy maps and gobs of free data. Combining this with a plethora of new tools, Google opened the way to the development of cool new Web based mapping applications. New Web technologies also began to appear. Adobe released Flex, Microsoft Silverlight and AJAX became popular in the Javascript world. The dawn of rich Internet applications (RIA’s) was upon us, where Web apps looked and felt like desktop apps. An array of new free RIA API’s appeared. ESRI released ArcGIS Javascript, Flex and Silverlight API’s. In the open source world Open Layers and OpenScales became available. Powerful spatial servers were launched including ArcGIS and GeoServer. With the advent of mobile, the GIS industry is in the midst of a new revolution.

The Mobile Market in 2011

Mobile remains a challenging market place. A turf war is being waged between rival hardware and software companies. Many new mobile devices have been launched in 2011. 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 HTML5 for the mobile Web and installed hybrid apps built with Adobe AIR.

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 optimized 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. Sites built with Flash, Flex and Silverlight are not accessible on the IPhone or IPad.

Installed applications are the second type of application 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.

Mobile ArcGIS

Imagine you are a public drainage operation worker. You spend much of your day out of the office. Your interests are manholes, cesspits, catch pits, downpipes, gully traps etc. Imagine further that you could get online GIS access via a mobile device to not only visualize these features, but also to edit their attributes. ESRI have been working hard providing mobile tools to do just that. They have just released a mobile application to the Apple App Store and Android Market. This application allows access to data published to ArcGIS Online. My company – WebMapSolutions – have similarly released GeoMobile for ArcGIS; a free custom mobile ArcGIS viewer. The app allows users to load their own map layers via a Web hosted configuration file. It also includes a number of tools; annotation/measure, interactive overview map, geo-coder, search, routing and geo-locator.

IPad & Android ArcGIS

Offline Mobile GIS

Suppose your tablet or smartphone has no Wi-Fi connectivity. Maybe you are working in forest management far from urban areas. Wouldn’t it be nice to store base maps for offline use. How about if you could fire up a map viewer and load both a base map and shapefiles, all stored locally on the mobile device? This is now quite possible. Many mobile devices now have considerable storage capacity. This makes it quite possible to store spatial data on the devices. Now not only can spatial data be visualized, but features can be edited and stored. Using a local database, running on the mobile device, this data can be uploaded when users again have network connectivity.

IPad & Android offline ArcGIS

Mobile GIS Data Collection and Check-In

Mobile applications are replacing more traditional ways of collecting field data. Pen and paper is still commonly used in the field. Now it is possible to collect data at the source and upload it directly to a server based database or a GIS. Simply collecting the current location, and time, on a mobile device is easy. Add to that geo-referenced images, text, maybe even voice recording. And allowing users to either store the data locally or upload directly to a server, will revolutionize much of the work done in the field.

IPhone MapQuest Data Collection Application

The Mobile Location Revolution

Location is, and will be key to many mobile applications. As we have discussed, the mapping and GIS sector are being revolutionized by mobile. Accessing true GIS apps like ArcGIS, both online and offline, while in the field has huge implications. Field data collection and feature editing will be both easier and more accurate using mobile devices. In the wider world of spatial data; dynamic traffic data, optimised routing and local searches are ever more popular.

We live in exciting times.


Rory Biggadike holds a BSc and MSc in Geography and GIS. He currently is a senior geospatial developer at WebMapSolutions.

WebMapsolutions are a Utah Mobile application development company. Based in Salt Lake City, the company specializes in building location based services (LBS), GIS and mapping applications.

Contact Rory at [email protected] or visit

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