Data for the People, by the People: Designing Smartphone-based GISystems for Environmental Resource Assessment

Sid Feygin


According to the most recent Nielsen data, smartphones comprise approximately 40% of mobile phones used by US citizens.

As mobile device technologies (e.g., smartphones and tablets) are increasingly becoming an indispensable part of our lives, more and more companies are taking advantage of the GPS capabilities of these devices to provide powerful crowdsourced geospatial data collection and consumption applications.

Recently, software developers have begun to take advantage of this proliferation of GPS-enabled devices in order to assist municipalities, NGOs, non-profits, educational institutions, and other organizations with their environmental data collection needs.

An increasing desire for regional organizations to directly involve communities in meeting environmental resource assessment while meeting regulatory objectives has provided a great opportunity for leveraging the power of mobile data collection and encouraging participatory GIS for both institutional and educational purposes.

Free weekly newsletter

Fill out your e-mail address to receive our newsletter!

Location-based surveys

There are several software platforms currently available that implement smartphone-based mobile surveys and associated survey form creation and aggregation technologies.

Data collection apps have already been developed for use on Blackberry, Windows Mobile, Android, and iOS platforms. The techniques used for creating surveys and post-processing vary in their complexity, application, compatibility, and cost, which is great because organizations implementing these solutions can choose from a number of technologies to find the one that best suits their needs and fits within their existing infrastructure.

This post highlights two of the stand-alone software platforms upon which a complete smartphone-based participatory GISystem can be built and the unique benefits provided by each.

I also discuss why professional assistance from a third-party organization (like the one I work with) can overcome some of the implementation hurdles and costs associated with developing a proprietary in-house (DIY) system using software systems such as the ones I discuss in this post.

Designing a DIY Smartphone-based GIS

When designing GISystems for the assessment of environmental resources using smartphones, a number of considerations must be made. These include identifying:

  1. The desired outcome of the project and the population served
  2. The term of the project and the budget/resources available for implementation
  3. Data quality objectives (i.e., if the data is to be used for research purposes will a crowdsourced application be robust enough for statistical analysis and/or will such a solution meet regulatory requirements?)
  4. Who will be collecting the data (i.e., use of internal resources, training of community volunteers, or untrained community crowdsourcing) and how will access be provided (e.g., through the app market or via an internal FTP site).
  5. If community crowdsourcing is used, will everybody in the community be given a chance to provide input, or will the data be collected by a certain subset.
  6. Who is the intended audience (e.g., internal use only, the general public, or both)
  7. How will the data be aggregated (this ties into database and security considerations)
  8. The desired venues for data dissemination and marketing (if externally distributed). This can include anything from desktop GIS use to maps on government websites to physical maps designed for inclusion in brochures and marketing materials.

Although it is vital to adequately define the project before selecting a software provider, it is good to learn about the different options available and keep them in mind while considering budget and feasibility constraints.

Examples of Software Providers

Esri ArcGIS Mobile

The leading GIS software provider, ESRI, has developed ArcGIS for Smartphones applications for iOS, Windows Mobile, and Android tablets and smartphones. GIS users can also access a good overview with links to ESRI websites describing development and implementation considerations.

  • Simple integration with existing enterprise ESRI ArcGIS infrastructure, which is an advantage for those using ESRI software for other enterprise GIS functionality
  • Dedicated technical support provided by ESRI and a large user community can ease troubleshooting of software and deployment snafus.
  • Extensive SDK, documentation, and feature list gives software developers a large palate of resources to assist in the design of surveys.
  • Field-tested by several water utility managers with promising results
  • As ArcGIS for Smartphones is a proprietary software, there is an added cost associated with data aggregation (ESRI server software must be used), and potential licensing restrictions, which can be mitigated by using open source solutions (see ODK below).

Already, these apps have allowed water utility managers to engage water consumers in identifying pollution discharge locations and providing feedback on infrastructure improvement needs.


ArcGIS for smartphones.
ArcGIS for smartphones.

Open Data Kit (ODK)

Developed by researchers at Google, ODK offers a complete open source platform for building forms (ODK Build), collecting data via Android-based smartphones (ODK Collect), and storing the data for retrieval using Google App Engine servers (ODK Aggregate).

The use of the software is provided under an open source license, so it is free to use and disseminate; however, hosting data via Google is chargeable after certain use maximums are exceeded.

ODK is aimed directly at developing world NGOs, non-profits, universities, and third-party service providers to these entities.

The additional benefit is that these apps can integrate with the full multimedia and GPS capabilities of Android phones to allow for efficient uplink to web mapping services.

ODK Build forms are coded in XML using the Xforms specification (this is an alternative to HTML as a specification for building online forms); however, a web browser-based drag-and-drop interface can be used to speed creation of these surveys.

As an example, ODK has been successfully used by researchers at Johns Hopkins University to replace paper forms used for community water quality assessments. Since its introduction in 2008, ODK has been deployed in a variety of settings in the developing world, and is a great resource for those wishing to provide geolocated data collection using a platform with a proven track record and extensive documentation.


  • Modular infrastructure allows the separate use of ODK Build, Collect, or Aggregate to replace commercially licensed software performing similar functions.
  • Detailed documentation, case studies, and research articles provide a knowledge base for software developers using ODK for a variety of data collection purposes. User forums are also a great sounding board for specific design troubleshooting.
  • Changing languages is easy in the ODK Collect app, which makes it well-suited for regions where more than one language is used.
  • Training users on the use of ODK collect is very straightforward and there are several resources on the site that provide specific case studies and research regarding the efficacy of various training methods.
  • ODK Collect is currently only available for Android smartphones, which necessarily complicates public application distribution for participatory GIS in communities where multiple OS platforms are already being used.
  • Another potential downside to using ODK is that the software is still in beta and technical support is limited to contacting the disparate developers through the forum boards or contacting prior/current users and researchers, who may or may not be available.

An Alternative to DIY Participatory GIS Design and Implementation

Developing in-house resources to implement smartphone-based participatory GIS platforms is time consuming and has many “hidden” costs, including professional development time spent learning how to use the software, developing content, optimizing content to the software system, and supporting and maintaining the system once it has been launched.

Both the DIY GIS and mobile GPS device fields are experiencing rapid technological change, which means that many systems are outdated soon after they are rolled out.  This means that supporting and maintaining an in-house system will continue to be costly in terms of professional development and employee time beyond the initial development phases.

In many cases, it is cost beneficial to an organization to use a third-party provider to manage roll-out of their platform.  This way, the organization gets to outsource costs such as designing the optimal system, content development, system updating and on-going support, which are then spread out over the entire portfolio of the third party’s clients instead of being borne wholly by a single organization. 

Additional benefits include certain “clearing” functions provided by the third party, which helps ensure data is standardized and can be readily shared and compared across organizations.

Renewable Explorations (REXP)

REXP manages all aspects of developing and supporting mobile GIS platforms running on DIY GIS tools, with a specific focus in natural resource related fields.  This includes survey creation and content support, deployment, and information clearing and aggregation, all of which help our clients avoid the cost of researching and developing in-house solutions.

REXP is familiar with the major spatial database systems, and can efficiently adapt for data aggregation and web hosting. Their experienced team focuses both on tech and survey content and includes experts and consultants from the environmental engineering and regulatory compliance field, whose expertise contributes to providing  surveys that generate statistically and scientifically relevant results.

REXP also provides training services and material templates that they can customize to a client’s specific situation. Once a survey platform is developed, transitioned to the client, and deployed, REXP is available for further technical support and extending the software in the future.

Photo of author
About the author
Sid Feygin