GIS Maps Bring Tourism, Telecom and Environmental Info to PDAs Throughout Europe

By Dan Ahern

A single currency and open borders are not the only things that the European Union is doing to bring together a patchwork quilt of countries.The European Commission launched the ODIN (geographic distributed Information) Project in 2000 to bring together disparate groups of GIS information to mobile device users across borders.The ODIN Project (www.odinproject.org), still in various phases of development, has already put the power of GIS to work in helping tourists find their way around, and letting government officials access info about hazardous materials, right at the job site.

From Mobile Phones to PDAs
In the mid 1990s, just as the Web was gathering steam, the European Commission started the TITAN project to bring tourist and governmental maps to the Web."The information was available on a standard Web site, so we thought, let's find a way to do the same thing and join together data from many different sources," says Uberto Delprato, ODIN Project Manager and head of research and development with Tardito Costruzioni e Impianti, a key participant in the development of ODIN."Half of the companies involved in TITAN decided to move information to mobile applications." The key participants, he says, were Ireland, Norway, Greece and Italy.

"In 1999, we were thinking about mobile phones rather than personal digital assistants (PDAs), so the first idea was to [send information] to a mobile phone with a nice display," Delprato says."Then in April of 2000, we suddenly discovered that technology was moving on." From that point on, the core TITAN team - renamed the ODIN Project - decided to focus on bringing GIS information to PDAs.

The goal of the project was to create a standardized European platform for delivering GIS information to mobile devices, including the capability to build custom applications using digital maps.This was a tall order: There were a plethora of mobile service providers scattered across Europe, which would make it difficult to provide consistent service.There was the possibility that fourteen different organizations, including several regional service providers, would be participating in the project.

Another key goal of the ODIN project was to make that whatever platforms were developed would be completely flexible.If they were not, few if any European organizations, public or private, would have the incentive to develop workable, easy-to-use applications."The challenge was to shape our design around usability," says Delprato."We had to find a way to harmonize access to a wide variety of information."

GIS Info Tailored to Country Needs
The ODIN project managers used Autodesk's MapGuide to manage the existing GIS maps, and Autodesk OnSite to deliver the data to mobile computing devices. The ODIN organizers also relied on consulting services from Autodesk to keep the project focused on making the system easy to use for all possible audiences - everyone from tourists to government officials.An early and smart decision was to integrate ODIN's core technology and its chosen software solutions with Microsoft .NET, which helps mobile devices retrieve data faster.

After completing the Microsoft .NET integration, the first prototype of the ODIN platform was ready - but the entire location-based services industry was still in its infancy.In addition, mobile communications in Europe at that time used the GSM standard, which didn't offer enough speed - the GPRS standard would not be introduced until 2002.

"At that time, we started a second iteration of design and implementation," Delprato says."In the summer of 2002, we had our final version of the tool."

ODIN offered different services in each of the four different regions involved in the first phase of the project, which was operated as a free demo.Norway offered PDA users tourist and government information (such as locations of public offices and post offices); Ireland offered tourist info; Greece offered tourist info as well as health information (for instance, locations of doctors and hospitals); and Italy provided tourist and environmental information.

The GIS information available via ODIN was put to use in Italy's Tuscany region.According to Italian law, regional environmental protection agencies must maintain databases of all hazardous material in a given region.Before ODIN came into the picture, the environmental agency in Tuscany had only a static database, Delprato explains: "It stayed on a computer, and they had to do a printout if someone asked what was going on at a chemical plant."

The ODIN-based application allows the Tuscany agency's engineers to access this hazardous material GIS data via their PDAs, at the job sites. "In case of a recent accident, for example, they can access the information on the move," explains Delprato."They can tap of the screen and see detailed information about a certain industry, or a certain plant, and the names of the individuals responsible for safety at the plant.They can also see what kinds of chemicals are being used, and the regulations that have to be satisfied by the plant."

Next Steps: Wastewater Tracking, Italian Tourist Maps
The practical applications of the hazardous waste applications have led the environmental protection agency to build other applications using the ODIN system. Currently under development, one application will track wastewater quality inspections.Agents in the field will be able to access a database of over 10,000 water discharge points across Tuscany, allowing them to quickly send inspection data through their PDAs."Using traditional methods, inspectors would only be able to conduct three or four inspections per day, but with mobile access to GIS data they will be able to complete ten," says Delprato."ODIN will more than double their productivity."

ODIN has also done a demo of a GIS-based service for tourists in Sicily, allowing them to access maps via PDAS.The ODIN Project loaned mobile devices to tourists as part of a pilot project, and solicited feedback on the usefulness of the information.

"One of the key things we discovered is that they were able to use the maps better than we expected," Delprato says."We expected to have some problems, and would have to explain, 'You have to tap here, pan here, zoom this way ...' but it was quite easy to teach them about it." The pilot program's organizers are now trying to build better and broader information into the GIS service before testing it again."The key point of this kind of application is that you must have some information in a different way than using books or normal printed guides, so that means that you have to access real-time data or something which is useful to you right now," Delprato adds.

Also in the works in Italy: maps, using the ODIN platform, that would show the location of mobile communications antennas when the UNTS network is put into place in Europe."UNTS needs many more antennas than GPRS or GSM, so they're going to use a similar approach with providing installation maps via mobile devices," says Delprato.

Even though ODIN is still rolling out its offerings, the implementation of the project's GIS solution has given Delprato and his colleagues many ideas for future uses of the technology."Maps are an ideal ways to share information," says Delprato."Whether for tourists or public servants, having mobile maps and other information available makes it easier to do and find any number of things."


Published Tuesday, August 17th, 2004

Written by Dan Ahern



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