What is Mobile GIS? Key Traits & Uses

mobile gis
Illustration: © IoT For All

Mobile GIS brings the power and complexity of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data into the field and onto the screen of your mobile device. But it’s also so much more than mere GIS mapping on a phone or tablet. Ultimately, an effective Mobile GIS is designed to connect the office and the field which entails empowering boots on the ground with three things:

  1. A context-rich map
  2. Intuitive data collection tools
  3. Streamlined communication

If a “Mobile GIS” fails on any of these three fronts, it fails in bridging the gap that exists between field and office teams. Too often, software is labeled “Mobile GIS” but is too complex for field users, doesn’t play nice with other applications, or has a poorly designed interface, creating siloes rather than dissolving them. But this doesn’t have to be the case. Effective Mobile GIS exists. It’s just a matter of understanding what to look for. Let’s start with a brief overview before examining key traits in more detail.

What Is Mobile GIS?

To understand Mobile GIS, it’s important to understand its predecessor: Desktop GIS (aka “legacy GIS”). Mobile GIS operates on a phone or tablet while Desktop GIS is installed directly onto a desktop or laptop computer. One depends on the cloud while the other is stored locally. However, mobility and cloud storage aren’t what truly set Mobile GIS apart. At the heart of Mobile GIS is the ease of use. Its counterpart requires specialized training to learn.

Organizations hire specialists to implement Desktop GIS and oversee a complicated system of record. This work involves complex data management, processing, and analytics. In contrast, Mobile GIS takes data from these back-office systems, represents it in a digestible format that anyone can use, and makes GIS actionable.

Why is Mobile GIS Important?

Mobile GIS is built with a different purpose in mind than Desktop GIS. It unites teams across an organization through streamlined fieldwork management, collaboration, and data collection. Even if someone doesn’t know what GIS is, they can still use Mobile GIS to:

  • Look up information about an asset and communicate with team members about work.
  • Easily navigate the field by seeing themselves and the location of their work on a map.
  • Collect key information that can then be transferred to their system of record, which may be a Desktop GIS.

Without Mobile GIS, field crews don’t have the tools and spatial intelligence they need to do their work efficiently. They are left with analog, paper-based workflows or clunky field software, which risks perpetuating siloes, confusion, bad data, and delays.

Mobile GIS vs. Online GIS

Mobile GIS is a relatively new technology, so there are many names for the same thing. However, while Mobile GIS can be called “Field GIS,” it’s different from “Online GIS.” This is an important distinction to make as you’re assessing your team’s technology needs. Online GIS is sometimes called “Web GIS” and “Cloud GIS” because the GIS is stored online in the cloud. Again, this is in contrast to Desktop GIS that’s loaded locally to a computer.

Mobile GIS is a subcategory of Online GIS since most mobile devices don’t have the storage or power to run a GIS software locally, but not all Online GIS is mobile or built for the field. Why do these definitions matter?

It’s important to have a Mobile GIS even if you already have a back-office Online GIS that stores everything in the cloud. With the rise of cloud storage, many Desktop GIS applications have shifted to the cloud but have yet to develop mobile tools that successfully connect field and office.

These Desktop GIS applications that have shifted to the cloud often release “Mobile GIS.” But these mobile apps are built on a complex infrastructure and remain very challenging to use. In other words, mobile apps claiming to be “Mobile GIS” but failing to support the field may be built with a very different purpose and audience in mind. Online GIS may have an app but remain identical to Desktop GIS in complexity, still require the support of GIS specialists, or be designed more for back-office analytics than boots on the ground. It’s critical to know the actual purpose and capabilities of a GIS application even if the label “Mobile GIS” has been tacked on by a software company’s marketing team.

So, how do you navigate this maze of field apps and competing claims? The answer is simple: Understand what you need in the field.

Key Traits of Mobile GIS

#1: Mobile Apps that Work

This may seem obvious. But not every platform has mobile apps that work. A company will advertise GIS apps, but not invest adequate resources in the user experience and mobile tools.  Additionally, GIS needs to be accessible offline to be truly “mobile.” Users should be able to download a section of their map and add data – like an inspection – even when they’re out of service. A field team should be able to carry Mobile GIS in their back pocket wherever work takes them. That may be in a suburban neighborhood, up the slopes of a mountain, or across the country.

#2: Intuitive GIS Visualization

As the name suggests, Mobile GIS must be able to import, visualize, and export GIS data. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? But can workers actually find the information that they need on the map? And the location of their work? Many of the features that make back-office GIS so powerful need to be stripped away so that anyone can see their data in one or two clicks and use intuitive filters and search functions to find what they need.

#3: Simple, Powerful Data Collection

Ultimately, Mobile GIS should be the easiest part of a field worker’s day. The real test: How long does it take to onboard a new user? How long before they start navigating the map, capturing data, and making annotations? How long before they’re training their peers? If you’re in conversation with a software provider, make sure you have a representative from the field, who can see the GIS in action.

#4: Connected Technology Ecosystem

GIS is only one piece of the puzzle. For any job, people need information from several different sources: the what, where, when, why, and how of their work.

Often, fieldwork depends on additional documentation from six or more tools:

  • Enterprise resource planning (ERP)
  • Enterprise asset management system (EAMS)
  • Engineering tools (2D, 3D, and 4D models)
  • Project and fieldwork management (e.g., assignments, financials, schedules, drawings)
  • Reality insights (e.g., IoT, sensors, vehicle tracking, monitoring, prediction)
  • Geographic Information System (GIS)

The challenge is for teams to juggle several different applications to find the data they need and get the job done. Not only is this inefficient but it risks data silos and miscommunication. Ideally, a Mobile GIS can integrate directly with your existing systems or simply import the necessary data types – so everything you need is stored and visualized in one place. This improves productivity and helps streamline field-to-office communication.

#5: More than GIS

By connecting your technology ecosystem, Mobile GIS should support a whole lot more than GIS. You should be able to dump a folder of photos and see them geo-located against your map. You should be able to turn spreadsheets or PDFs into GIS data as well. In the end, anyone should be able to map the data that they have in whatever format it comes in.

By being “data agnostic,” it empowers users who have a complex, mixed dataset that originates from several separate systems and users who don’t even have a GIS to begin with but that would like to get started. This is the true power and potential of Mobile GIS: not only extending GIS into the field but equipping users for whom GIS has been historically out of reach.

#6: Independence From System of Record

Last but not least, your Mobile GIS should be independent of your system of record. This comes naturally with a Desktop GIS, where data is stored locally and anything from a Mobile GIS must be manually transferred over.

However, when your Mobile GIS and Online GIS system of record are both stored in the cloud, this could become an issue. Field workers shouldn’t be able to permanently change your system of record from their mobile device. Implementing advanced roles such as viewer, manager, and admin does control who has access to what information and will limit errors. But mistakes are still made. Especially when a field crew is busy with what is often a complex and physically demanding project.

To prevent errors from entering your record, look for a Mobile GIS that requires simple, manual import and export. This way, you can have someone review everything that’s new from the field and act as a last line of defense before it’s entered into the back office.

Applications of Mobile GIS

Mobile GIS serves as a replacement for paper-heavy workflows and clunky field applications for critical infrastructure providers. It’s a powerful tool in construction, ongoing operations and maintenance, resiliency planning, and emergency response.

Though fairly new on the scene, it will continue to expand anywhere there’s work to be done in the world. To recap, there are three reasons why this is the case:

  1. Paper is necessary: Many crews still rely on paper to understand their job and document their fieldwork. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise that these workflows are less effective than digital data collection.
  2. Digital field tools: Few organizations are untouched by digital transformation today. But the field is often the last to see this innovation.
  3. Maps: Stored in a spreadsheet or folder structure, your data’s missing a critical dimension: real-world location. A map adds context to your data and uncovers insights that might be buried in columns and rows.

GIS on the Rise

Industries that have historically avoided GIS – like construction – are beginning to leverage this data type as GIS grows more accessible, reporting is standardized, and siloes dissolve between stakeholders along an asset’s entire lifecycle. For many, the future is GIS. Fortunately, Mobile GIS serves as an affordable and approachable starting point.

Trusted by top utilities, contractors, and the federal government, Unearth equips those who build and maintain infrastructure with intuitive data capture, spatial intelligence, and collaboration. In other words, easy-to-use Mobile GIS.
Trusted by top utilities, contractors, and the federal government, Unearth equips those who build and maintain infrastructure with intuitive data capture, spatial intelligence, and collaboration. In other words, easy-to-use Mobile GIS.