The rapid evolution of geospatial technologies brings to mind a Yogi Berra quote: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Berra made the remark while giving directions to his home. Either choice would take you to Berra’s home in the same amount of time. Like many “Yogi-isms” that blended wisdom and counterintuitive logic, this quote carried a deeper message: Seemingly divergent paths can lead to the same result.
Berra’s advice especially strikes a chord with geospatial data collection, where GIS and other positioning professionals can choose from a pair of approaches to gathering data in the field. Purpose-built data collection devices, which have been the norm for a decade or more, are now sharing the stage with Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) solutions such as consumer-grade smartphones and tablets.
Both are good options. The happy dilemma lies in determining which approach provides the best route to the objective: efficiently gathering accurate information that can be quickly provided to the people who need and use it.
There are convincing arguments both for BYOD and commercial data collection solutions. On the commercial side, specialized field handheld hardware needs to be rugged enough and well-suited for operation in challenging environments. The displays and keyboards must provide good visibility in sunlight and perform well under difficult conditions. The devices can and should also be able to leverage task-specific software provided by manufacturers such as Trimble and Esri. Alternatively, software development kits (SDKs) and application programming interfaces (APIs) enable third-party developers to create their own specialized applications for the rugged units.
Some commercial solutions incorporate additional sensors such as precise GNSS and integrated distance measurement. External devices such as gas detectors and environmental sensors can be wirelessly connected and integrated into field workflows. The form factors for commercial solutions include tablets and handheld units with keyboards and/or touch screens.
By contrast, consumer devices are widely available and can support many different tasks and applications. Specialized application software is emerging for popular operating systems including iOS, Windows, and Android. Many durability issues can be addressed using add-on environmental cases or covers; some manufacturers now offer water-resistant smartphones.
While it remains true that consumer mobile devices typically lack the precision found in many commercial GNSS positioning products, there are two ways to address the issue. One method uses simple external devices such as field proven GNSS receivers that connect to a mobile device via Bluetooth. This approach provides up to centimeter accuracy in real time and can be used with a wide variety of smartphones, tablets and handhelds. The GNSS receiver can be shared among users, providing flexible, cost-efficient operations.
BYOD users can also achieve high-accuracy positioning by way of the new on-demand software GNSS capabilities and services. Using an app running on an Android smartphone or tablet together with a low-cost external GNSS antenna, solutions such as Trimble Catalyst can produce up to centimeter accuracy in real time. Users have the flexibility to choose the level of accuracy needed for their application. The position information can be used by any application running on the Android device.
Software, Software, Software
Much of the value in a field solution comes from customized software applications that meet specific needs. The benefits include tailored workflows and data, potentially lower costs (such as not paying for precision you don’t need) and easy exchange of information among multiple users. Commercial software and cloud-based systems are very good at this. Manufacturers have developed strong solutions for a growing number of vertical markets. While some of these solutions rely on commercial hardware, many solutions can support consumer products as well.
For example, users of either commercial or BYOD field solutions can use cloud-based software to create optimized workflows and data management. Customized solutions may also look to include direct access to Esri GIS and other back-office systems for efficient exchange of up-to-date information.
The growth in software and hardware presents a challenge for geospatial professionals: Because of BYOD options and simpler workflows, it’s no longer necessary to rely on special skills and equipment for positioning as the main advantage over non-skilled users. This means that the ability to produce accurate positions is extending to more people. As we well know, however, capturing a position is only a small part of the flow of geospatial information.
In order to maintain and increase their business, geospatial professionals must help their clients understand the value that the professional brings to the table. While non-professionals will gain access to more precise measurement technologies, the geospatial professional can leverage his or her ability to understand and manage geospatial data and weave it into the day-to-day operations of downstream users and the public.
This knowledge, which includes the selection of equipment and software to optimize workflows and information integration, provides geospatial professionals with a significant advantage. With the ability to choose between commercial or consumer-grade equipment, the geospatial professional can develop the most efficient, cost-effective approach to meet the demands of specific tasks and clients. Fortunately, Yogi Berra was right: both forks in the road can lead to a positive outcome.