A Geospatial Tablet Revolution

By Matt Sheehan

The launch of Google Maps in the mid-2000s generated shock waves in the industry. Geospatial had, up to that point, sat quietly in its corner. A niche sector, desktop based, filled with nerdy spatial types. With Google Maps, everybody suddenly had access to slippy, interchangeable maps. We could zoom in and view our homes, map our runs, build our own mapping applications. Fast forward to today. All major geospatial companies are Web-focused. Take Esri as an example, and its flagship ArcGIS product. Geospatial professionals and users now have access to geospatial applications remotely. The industry has moved from niche to the mainstream.
 
The mobile revolution is now upon us. Smartphones are everywhere. A new sector has emerged based on geolocation. Companies such as Foursquare and Gowalla are building applications around users’ current location. Based on check-ins, point earning and gaming, they are focused on customer loyalty. But tablet devices are not smartphones. Screen real estate, resolution and interaction are quite different. With the iPad, for example, we get a user experience closer to that of our desktop. Both installed and Web-based geospatial applications are becoming available. We have moved to remote access everywhere.
 
So, mobile tablet users can access geospatial applications anywhere and everywhere. Convenient for sure, but hardly transformative. So why the talk of a new revolution for geospatial professionals? In a word - geolocation. The geospatial industry can now add “from where I am now” questions to their applications. Simply knowing where somebody is allows for targeted, personalized and contextually sensitive information to be provided to users. Applications will move from generic to specific. 
 
This new revolution will affect every part of the geospatial industry:
  • Data - collection, editing – There will be a massive increase in location-based data. Both latent data based on an individual’s changing location and actively collected data will dramatically increase. Crowdsourced geospatial projects, similar to OpenStreetMap, will become more popular.   
  • Editing – This will increasingly be done in the field, and on a much wider scale, as mobile devices proliferate - leading to greater data accuracy. Accuracy is an issue for the United Nations with its international forest data. As the U.N. tries to more closely monitor the carbon balance, the data remain a problem. Low cost mobile devices will help field workers improve these source data. 
  • Analysis - Context is often the key to analysis. Geospatial analysis done remotely lacks context. For example, to effectively fight forest fires, spatial data are often an important tool. But analysis is fed to teams in the field. What if the field teams had geospatial analysis tools in the field, using real-time data? Both analysis and response times could potentially be dramatically improved. 
  • Visualization - Maps remain a key visualization tool for geospatial data. The mobile revolution will expand the methods of data visualization. Much greater use will be made of graphical representations. Animation, 3-D and temporal representations will become more common. For example, spatially based “what if” scenarios could be run. On a building site, an architect’s drawing could be viewed on a mobile device. Hold the device up, view the empty lot, then overlay a 3-D representation of the drawing. As you move, the drawing’s perspective changes. A world of possibilities will be opened up by mobile devices for viewing geospatial data.  
The geospatial industry is presented with a massive opportunity, as the private sector finally grasps the importance of location. Geospatial professionals are about to enter a new world. Bigger and brighter. One filled with expanding possibilities.

Published Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

Written by Matt Sheehan


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