For years, businesses have invested in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to improve operational efficiency and enhance decision making with geospatial data. However, these assets have languished in silos due to organizational barriers, or because users needed expertise in complex GIS, photogrammetric, or remote sensing software. Even today, enterprises still grapple with liberating the data that would deliver efficiency gains and improved decision support.
Meanwhile, end users have become accustomed to free mapping services and consumer apps that make sharing location information as easy as tapping a button on a smartphone.
Fortunately, there is a new movement in the industry that makes it possible to turn every field worker into a sensor and to deliver information and situational awareness to the C-suite by making the sharing of location intelligence as simple and easy as the consumer app experience.
These new solutions help organizations create intelligent, portable location-based apps for their unique areas of interest and specialized workflows. Available with a tap from any user’s smartphone or tablet, the apps deliver real-time information to and from users at the “edge of the enterprise.”
LIVING IN A MOBILE WORLD
Today’s world offers free, open Web-based mapping and location services that are easily leveraged and eagerly consumed. Any user can now access maps and data that were once in the hands of a select few. With Google Maps, Google Earth, or a Garmin GPS, we have all become accustomed to accessing the vast availability of data, which has fostered an expectation of being able to visualize information in a map context as a matter of course.
We are seeing some smaller enterprises adopt these consumer technologies for business applications. However, for organizations with a mobile workforce of employees, subcontractors or vendors, the consumer-grade programs are difficult to configure, or lack features needed for location-enabled workflows.
In many cases, these organizations don’t have the financial bandwidth to make the investment in larger GIS systems. When they do have the option of investing in GIS or proprietary hardware for capturing field data, many deployment challenges remain. These solutions tend to be highly cumbersome to use, require specialized training and can be very costly.
Small businesses and enterprises need a modern alternative to these costly, outdated and inefficient methods to meet their mobile data collection and collaboration needs.
LOCATION-ENABLED COLLABORATION, SIMPLIFIED
A modern mobile data collection and collaboration solution should be as straightforward as tweeting an observation or posting a photo to Instagram. Simplicity is paramount for helping organizations drive effective and efficient decision making. Today’s geospatial and collaboration applications should be as easy as clicking one button. From a straightforward product download, to rapid team deployment and swift end user adoption, the application should also provide easy payment options and encourage immediate engagement.
Fortunately, next-generation solutions offer intuitive interfaces that enable mobile workers to easily record notes, photos, and videos when in the field. From there, it is possible to easily synchronize with project managers in the office, so they have a dashboard view of data, occurring in real time. The data is also easily accessed whether dealing with a lightweight or heavyweight workflow.
In addition, much of the mapping data comes from OpenStreetMap, GeoPDFs and other easy-to-use data sources—allowing anyone in the organization to access and utilize these maps. One of the advantages of these new types of solutions is that all of the data can reside on a private cloud, enhancing both the security of the data as well as simplifying access and collaboration.
The ease of this process enables small businesses and enterprises to start gaining efficiencies, better decision making, and savings immediately with a deployment as simple as a user downloading the app from an online store.
NEW CONCEPT OF TEAMWORK AND COLLABORATION
The most effective organizations foster highly collaborative cultures, where information is seamlessly shared. For far too long the most valuable information was locked in silos, and once this data was released, it was often too late. The right collaborative approach can help organizations operate at the speed of life.
Furthermore, most data collection solutions are very effective at collecting the right geospatial information. What they lack is ease of sharing. We all know that the amount of sensor data is only increasing, as are the potential uses, ranging from providing situational awareness, ensuring environmental safety or supporting mission-critical decision making.
The most forward-thinking organizations empower their employees for seamless collaboration in real time, enabled by business apps that enable organizational networking much like consumer apps do for social networking.
INDUSTRY FOCUS: OIL & GAS
In the oil and gas industry, companies are exploring the Earth’s most remote geographies and hostile terrains, while maintaining millions of miles of pipeline and moving assets by road, sea and air. The timeliness and accuracy of data collected from remote sites is essential to the efficiency and reliability of global operations. In this sector, companies require sophisticated solutions that advance well beyond using paper forms and cumbersome, manual processes.
From pipeline inspection to oil discovery, these new types of solutions make it easy to record observations and immediately sync that information back to headquarters, or share with other field workers. Many project managers can leverage these kinds of solutions for creating notebooks with tasks, custom forms, workflows and offline maps. The notebooks can then be assigned to teams to use offsite, even in remote locations without connectivity.
Oil and gas companies can also leverage unstructured data collection, allowing on-the-spot observations to be immediately turned into tasks, and urgent operational issues can be met with an equally rapid response.
INDUSTRY FOCUS: UTILITIES
Utility companies face the challenge of maintaining a vast amount of electrical and mechanical equipment, across large geographical regions. From distribution boxes and transformers to cellular towers, this equipment requires regular monitoring from the control center and field service from the crews on the ground.
Traditionally, using paper forms and stand-alone CAD and GIS databases has made this a slow and onerous task, prolonging outages, reducing reliability and delaying response times.
New solutions now make it easier for utility crews, mobile workers and engineers to share distribution system maps and information in real time. This tremendously minimizes delays waiting on system control personnel to share equipment location data to diagnose and correct an issue.
Once again, it is easy to create notebooks with tasks, custom forms, workflows and offline maps. For example, for cellular companies, forms could be created to monitor antenna inspections, sweep tests, impedance testing and visual inspections with photos and videos. For lighting companies, forms can help keep track of the millions of light poles that dot the highways and to document deteriorating foundations or bulbs out of service.
INDUSTRY FOCUS: AGRICULTURE
In the world of agriculture, accurate environmental data and location-based intelligence is important to the sustainability and growth of an area. From crop surveys, to soil analysis, to animal health, there is a vast amount of useful data that could improve agriculture conditions. Without a solid system to keep track of this data and monitor trends in real time, it’s difficult to make informed planning decisions and to have a common operating picture of conditions.
Today’s solutions allow agriculture organizations to easily monitor the health of their land changes in real time from a dashboard from any location.
Landowners can also use these types of solutions to create notebooks with tasks, workflows, custom forms and offline maps. These notebooks can work in remote locations without connectivity, which is quite common in the agricultural industry.
INDUSTRY FOCUS: NATURAL RESOURCES
When it comes to natural resources, collecting data in remote regions over millions of square miles poses a difficult challenge. Traditional maps carried into the field make collecting data a cumbersome process and getting that data back for analysis can be slow and arduous.
From forestry to watershed surveys, these new innovations make it easy to record observations to share with headquarters. This means that organizations no longer have to wait years, months, or even days for survey or inspection results.
For example, forms for a logging site could be used to collect the species of trees, status on what percent have been processed and status of equipment being used. For bodies of water, fish population surveys could be performed and tagged to geolocations—all through simplified workflows that increase visibility, reduce costs and enhance decision-making.
INDUSTRY FOCUS: DEFENSE & INTELLIGENCE
When it comes to national security, timely, accurate geospatial intelligence is a strategic advantage for policy-makers and warfighters. The quality of this intelligence is critically important, and can make the difference between mission success and failure.
Military personnel act as human sensors in the field, but the challenge is quickly bringing intelligence to leaders and commanders to support strategic and tactical decisions. Unfortunately, data can be disorganized, or simply just arrive too late. For the past decade, there have been many discussions about how we need to provide actionable intelligence to the warfighter in real time.
New advancements actually make this possible, supporting multiple mission areas, including military operations, and intelligence analysis. Next-generation solutions make it easy for field personnel to record observations and immediately get the information back to a main office. This minimizes delays waiting for damage assessments, location reports, geography surveys or human intelligence.
INDUSTRY FOCUS: ENVIRONMENTAL
When it comes to the environment, accurate, detailed data and location-based intelligence are important to the sustainability and growth of an area. There is a vast amount of useful data within erosion surveys and water quality reports that could improve land conditions. Environmental organizations need to keep track of this data and monitor trends in real time, which aids in making informed planning decisions and monitoring potential risks.
Regulatory agencies or other project managers can use these next-generation solutions to create notebooks with tasks, assign workflows, design custom forms and load maps, offline. For example, forms can be created to monitor erosion levels, retention wall conditions and terrain type. They could also be used to monitor water quality (pH, oxygen level, algae type) and compare it to the fish population in an area.
INDUSTRY FOCUS: CRISIS RESPONSE
When disaster strikes, accurate and timely data from personnel on the ground can save thousands of lives and prevent millions of dollars of property damage.
Unfortunately, conditions for reporting data are particularly challenging in that climate. Cellular connectivity may be down, transportation infrastructure can be destroyed and data can be scattered across multiple agencies. Finding a way to organize this data and quickly report it back to a central disaster planning headquarters/unit is very challenging.
The new solutions make it easy for field personnel,volunteers and others to record field observations and get the information to those who need it most. Even the smallest delay in response time can mean disaster in these types of conditions.
By using these solutions, it is possible to create forms for monitoring structural damage (building type, number of occupants, damage type), aiding facilities in the area (number of volunteers, food status, power status), and even monitoring evacuation routes (congestion, road conditions, etc.).
These are merely a handful of examples of how new geospatial collaboration solutions can truly help organizations with making effective decisions in real time, based on data from the field.
In the near future, we will see cumbersome GIS systems being outpaced by more simplified solutions that are more consumer-like in their operation. From the one-button push for the right information to sharing data in regions with little connectivity, it is possible to harness the power of geospatial systems in ways that will truly enhance our world.
GEORGE DEMMY is Chief Technology Officer at TerraGo Technologies. He is one of the patent holders for the process that creates geo-referenced PDF files. He holds a B.A. in Physics from Florida State University and an M.E. and Ph. D in Agricultural Engineering from the University of Florida.