Solving Field GIS Wireless Connectivity Issues with Web Apps

GIS Contributor


Wireless connectivity issues can be costly in terms of time, expense and customer satisfaction. Slow response times, and dropped connections can be impossibly frustrating.

A primary challenge for field staff are weak cell signals. That can be due to distance from the cell sites, working indoors or blocked cellular signals due to urban landscapes.

As they move, often field staff make use of various public and private WiFi, 3G, and 4G data connections. Signal strength and speed can vary enormously.

Even as cell reach and strength improve, wireless connectivity issues remain a problem for field based staff. This is a particular concern in industries such as utilities where safety is so important.

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In looking for solutions, focus can be put on the networks and signals themselves, and very slowly network carriers are making improvements. But simpler, faster and cheaper is to offline enable mobile GIS applications.

Working with Data Offline

Every organization stores its data in databases; Oracle, Microsoft SQL Server, PostgreSQL etc. Most mobile applications use services and data stored in organizational databases.

For GIS that means base map tiles, editable feature layers, geo-coding services, routing, the list goes on. Imagine storing the organizational data used by a mobile application in a database on the mobile device itself.

Welcome to the world of offline GIS.

Now there are two types of applications field based workers use on their mobiles: so called native apps and web apps.

Native apps are those you download from the Apple, Android and Windows mobile stores. These are installed apps.

Web apps are those you use in a browser. Native apps are built just for mobiles.

Web apps are designed for use on all devices. More than that they are usable across platforms.

ArcGIS for smartphones.
ArcGIS for smartphones.

So pull up your favourite browser on your desktop, laptop, iPhone, iPad, Android Galaxy or Surface Pro. Type in a URL and the same web page will load on each device.

Web apps are ubiquitous, and usable on any device. So extremely flexible. Native apps are less flexible. They are built for a specific platform: Apple, Android, Windows.

Today we often associate web with our office or home use and native with our mobiles. But the lines are beginning to blur. Web technology and HTML5 are advancing rapidly.

As an example in 2015 we will see ever more 3-D web apps. Offline web apps are also finally here. It is now possible to build a web application which writes data to a local database.

So not in temporary memory but a permanent store. Weak cell signals are very common, using local data field staff no longer need to wait an eternity for data to load.

In completely disconnected areas, work can continue uninterrupted. Large datasets are not a problem, nor are browser crashes.

Extending Functionality with Offline Enabled Widgets

At WebMapSolutions, not only have we been developing offline GIS capabilities in the browser, we have also started using Javascript widgets. These are self contained pieces of code which can be dropped into any web app to extend functionality.

Examples include overview map, measure tool, directions, identify, edit etc.

Taking a widget based approach to GIS web app development is becoming very popular. It allows a base map viewer to provide a focused set of tools based on the requirements of the user.

A screenshot of a map showing shaded relief.
Sheehan: “any web application which is used in the field on laptop or mobile device should be simple and offline enabled.”

As an example, senior field staff may be using a laptop with a web app configured to contain management focused widgets. While maintenance staff using tablets could be using work order widgets.

Our focus has been on also developing offline enabled widgets. So custom forms which can be completed while lacking good wireless connectivity, stored on the mobile device, then uploaded or emailed when the wireless signal is strong.

Web apps are cheap to build, easy to maintain and extend, and extremely flexible. Offline enabling GIS web apps offers huge potential advantages to organizations and their field based staff.

About the author

Matt Sheehan has been working with GIS for over 20 years. He is a Principal at WebMapSolutions, who specialize in providing mobile GIS solutions.


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