GIS on Mobile?

Image from NationMap.Gov

GIS on mobile can mean a lot of different things. I like to think it depends on what the user's requirements are as there is no one source solution to GIS as a whole. I was inspired to write an article on the topic after an inquiry put out by one of our Google+ contacts asking what Android had to offer for apps relating to GIS recognizing that iOS has many. I think there are many applications that can fit the billet that are not even categorized in the GIS realm even though they should be. Just asking for something GIS related in general is a broad request therefore let's start with what our contact is actually asking for.

"Primarily something to take into the field for data collection. Something that will allow easy uploading of basemaps ahead of time, collecting point & line features using GPS. Definitely has to be able to work in an offline mode."  

So if we interpret his request correctly he is looking for a mobile app that can do the following:

  • Has the ability to work offline
  • Can record GPS points or Tracks
  • Can download or preload Maps
  • Allows user to upload map files for basemap such as USGS Topo maps
  • Can export data in a variety of GIS formats

The request has a very specific purpose as the individual would like to use a mobile application as an operator not necessarily as a desk GIS. The request doesn't involve any specific analysis then it could be more under the topic of a GPS application than GIS. None the less I began my search on Android where my first thought didn't bring me to a single mapping application that can satisfy all of the requirements but multiple apps that with one or two features here and there. I've used Google My Tracks with great success in recording GPS locations live and it gives you the option to sync/export the data to FusionTables, Spreadsheets, or some other type of storage device. However as stated My Tracks doesn't meet all the requirements. We still need an application that can not only record GPS, do it offline, but can allow the user to use or upload their own basemap data such as USGS Topo maps. 

With that said my next thought was Google Maps/Google Earth Mobile. Google Maps does have the ability to let you download Map data but only Google Maps data. Google Earth, you may think what can that do? Well Google Earth mobile has had some significant updates over the course of the last year. If one uploaded their USGS Topo maps to Google Maps Engine you can login to that using Google Earth Mobile. What about offline? Well if you had KML file versions of those Topo maps and moved them onto your device ahead of time you can use them with Google Earth mobile too. I've gotten this to work with other KML files. Okay...sounds like Google Earth is the solution right? Nope, Google Earth does mark you GPS location but it doesn't record it so we would have to use a second app like Google MyTracks alongside Google Earth if we were to go this route. 

My offhand knowledge has been exhausted at this point so what do we do? Go to the play store and do some hard searches. The application that seems to have the most potential meeting the requirements is Backcountry Navigator TOPO GPS. It costs $9.99 for the one time download but also offers a pricey subscription for Topo Maps. In addition it has a subscription option for making High Res Imagery requests from the DigitalGlobe archive. It very specifically states it is great for offline use while recording your GPS location as you go and import GPS waypoints from file formats GPX and KML. The reviews and ratings have this application at a 4.5 out of 5. With that said I concede that Backcountry Navigator TOPO GPS is the GIS application for this specific requirements requested. Will this satisfy our Google+ colleague? Time will tell as we have requested feedback as he tries the application out for his needs. Is this a GIS app or GPS app? I think it can be considered both depending on what the user intends to use the data for but specifically this is more on the side of GPS Mapping app.

Well that brings us back to the question what is a GIS application?

According to ESRI's website A geographic information system (GIS) lets us visualize, question, analyze, interpret, and understand data to reveal relationships, patterns, and trends. It just so happens ESRI has an ArcGIS app on the Google Play store that does just that.  Unfortunately the reviews indicate that the application doesn't do well in without a good connection, let a alone no connection at all.

Other companies such as BAE Systems are using Mobile devices as a ground reporting tool in which data can eventually feed into more advanced GIS applications or databases. Perhaps this is all that is required to qualify as a GIS app. They currently have two apps on the Google Play store right now, GXP Xplorer Mobile and GXP Xplorer Snapshot which compliment each other. Xplorer Snapshot allows users to submit to the Xplorer Server with photos from their mobile device tagging their location. Xplorer Mobile allows the users to search from a vast archive of submitted data to include making queries to news feeds based off a desired location. The user can use the data from search results to create their own reports. BAE Systems showcased another Xplorer Addon application similar to snapshot designed for Google Glass at this year's GEOINT Symposium but is not ready for public release.

As a simple reporting tool many people underestimate their mobile devices in general. By combining the features of the device itself mixed with multiple applications you may have all the tools you need for a GIS Application for visualizing, researching data, recognizing patterns, and even creating a report. I already mentioned the power of using Google My Tracks alongside Google Earth. A few years ago I performed an experiment with a similar application to My Tracks called Latify in which I broadcasted my recorded location in KML as I took a road trip around the nation. The data was dyanamically displayed live on a website where in addition every time I submitted a Geotagged photo it would also broadcast those photos through KML to my website too.

There are many ways to mix and match mobile apps to meet your needs. Traditionally Blogger is known as a Blog management app but it can be just as powerful as a Geospatial Reporting tool. For example with Blogger, you can attach your location to every post, upload images to the post, write a report, and finally submit it to an online audience. What's even more unique is if you attach your location to a blog post you can extract that from the GeoRSS feed and even distribute and convert into KML to share out which means your blog can be a dynamic geospatial reporting tool. To put icing on the cake Google+ is now completely integrated into blogger to allow for a wider collaboration effort from social media or even a private audience if you decide to integrate the blog into a private Google+ page. However, if you have connection with your mobile device using this logic any social media website can become your own personal geospatial reporting tool as long as 1. You Geotag your posts and 2. You Geotag your photos. In the case of social media you may also have to make your posts public just to extract the data from the APIs.

I hope you enjoyed my thoughts about mobile Geospatial applications. There are ton of apps out there and when we get around to it we will list as many as we can but for now we want to know what you think. Do you have a GIS Application you enjoy using on Android or any mobile device? What features does it have that you like? What can it do better? Perhaps you have your own mix of apps that work well for specific Geospatial purpose. Let us know in the comments.