Delivering GIS to the Masses

Skip replication. Go right to dissemination.

by / November 1, 2004
A year ago, the Department of Public Works in Waterford, Mich., piloted a wireless/terminal-server solution to deliver geographic information and related systems into the field where employees need them. Now the township plans to deploy its own wireless network, which will be used to support the Public Works Department's solution and other Waterford agencies.

Successful GIS is designed for enterprisewide deployment -- not hoarding by a select few in an organization. Incorporating GIS into daily workflow, however, involves continual challenges, including data maintenance and dissemination.

With today's wireless options, now is the time to seriously consider wireless alternatives. Users can access data live from a server with solid performance from miles away, on the road or in the field. They can access and modify data in real time without maintaining or updating a stand-alone field device.

In other words, there's no need to replicate -- just dial in and disseminate.

"The wireless solution, when used in conjunction with a terminal server solution, such as Citrix, is attractive because it works in both the office and field -- you don't need a different set of tools to work on specialized local data sets," said Eric Hrnicek, GIS design supervisor for Woolpert, a civil engineering and IT consulting firm in Dayton, Ohio. "The field worker can grab a laptop and go. The system administrator only needs to upgrade the terminal server when vendors release new products and upgrades."

But the solution isn't perfect -- there are security issues, and workers aren't always in signal range.

First Steps
The first wireless users in Waterford's pilot were field personnel who needed access to the township's GIS and computerized maintenance management system (CMMS).

The pilot's primary objective was determining the best way to give field personnel real-time access to the GIS and associated documentation -- including large engineering drawings -- without loading big files onto field devices, because they would need continuous updating. Personnel devised a method allowing field devices to integrate as seamlessly as possible -- which meant no special software on the devices.

In this case, a solution using Citrix solved the problem because only a wireless connection -- or remote connection via the Internet -- gave field users a live link to the GIS and any published applications at the office.

After fixing compatibility kinks, workers used Sprint PCS Connection Cards and a one-year service subscription to retrieve and record data related to infrastructure, issue and complete work orders, and attach digital photos of infrastructures in need of service in real time via the Internet.

The Citrix-based solution, including server and licenses, cost $20,000.

Plan, Organizational Issues
Knowing how they planned to apply wireless technology helped staff purchase the right hardware, software and wireless networks.

Hrnicek recommends a substantial server and enough middleware software licenses to support a large sample of the user population. "Seriously consider floating licensing for GIS software where applicable [AutoDesk and ESRI support this] to capitalize on concurrent use cost savings over fixed-seat licensing," he said.

Relational database management systems should be second nature before diving into this solution. Organizations should switch from file sharing to Oracle or SQL Server if they haven't already done so, he said.

Investigating how wireless will impact the organization is also important at this stage -- or at least before full implementation. Some issues to consider include workflow processes, culture, education, politics, budgets, and lack of standards and data inconsistencies.

Waterford uses various mobile platforms depending on the task, including HP iPAQ PDAs, Fujitsu rugged tablet PCs and Dell notebooks. Experience shows that wireless modems most easily adapt to laptop platforms because the technology is the most developed, and is improving with tablet PCs.

Software compatibility continues to be an issue, especially with devices like PDAs, although the current generation is improving. In other words, it isn't plug-and-play -- yet. Some other platform options include Web-enabled cell phones, interactive wireless pagers and mobile data terminals.

Wireless infrastructure exists in most urban areas, but isn't everywhere yet -- and access levels vary from area to area. There are two main ways to access wireless networks: wireless wide area networks (WWAN) or wireless local area networks (WLAN).

WWANs, such as those provided by Sprint, AT&T and Verizon, connect users almost anywhere there's a cell phone signal. Subscribing to such a service, however, requires a commitment that can be expensive. Using a laptop or tablet PC can also require a more expensive modem.

Waterford began by using Sprint PCS Vision CDMA 2G service and now uses CDMA2000 3G service, which costs about $80 per month per user. 3G service costs can be prohibitive, but bandwidth can be an issue at 2G.

"Current performance on cellular-based wireless networks is acceptable for most asset management client/server applications," Hrnicek said. "If reception is good, it can be acceptable for image-intensive displays such as a GIS."

3G wireless networks ushered in the era of high-speed wireless data and voice network technology, which is where most local governments using wireless are today. With transfer rates of 144 Kbps to 2 Mbps and a broadband connection, people can remotely log on to servers to access various programs, surf the Web, hold video conferences, attach documents to e-mail, etc. 3G, however, isn't everywhere in the United States yet.

4G technology -- a microcellular data network with transfer speeds of 100 Mbps to 1 Gbps -- is being piloted around the country and internationally. This generation will allow high-quality streaming video and audio, but is several years away.

WLANs -- commonly known as Wi-Fi hotspots -- have one or more wireless access points that allow users to get online. WLAN Internet access is fairly fast, and when using commercial hotspots, customers usually can pay as they go (no subscription contracts required). Some hotspots even offer free access. The cons are that users usually must be within 300 feet of a Wi-Fi hotspot, and they deal with different providers depending on location so they have to get to know each provider's nuances.

Using various commercial hotspots also creates a lack of security and encryption standards, which may not matter when surfing the Web, but matter very much to a public works department. Users must also tolerate other hotspot users (more users equals slower service), and there's always a chance the hotspot could close shop.

Waterford conducted a financial analysis of its goal for widespread use of wireless technology and found that building its own wireless network may be more cost-effective in the long run. In fact, construction of Wi-Fi hotspots could provide relatively quick payback if some of the service is sold to other users.

Moreover, other departments within the township, such as police and fire, would use the hotspots, thus expanding on wireless capabilities. One Waterford community building plans to use the technology for a high-speed connection to the township's network and for its phone system -- saving on the cost of slower ISDN lines and more expensive T1 lines. Waterford's homeland security efforts would also be enhanced by enabling real-time video streaming from security cameras posted at key water and wastewater facilities throughout the township.

Waterford estimates that a townshipwide deployment would take about five years to implement and cost approximately $300,000. Staff members will start by developing the network backbone and offering connections to specific water and sewer sites.

To reduce software incompatibilities and worker learning curves, the township chose Citrix to mimic the office desktop experience. The Citrix server, which is connected directly to the office network, includes a processor and memory card. All processing occurs on the server. Citrix also allows for an additional transfer stream from the client to the server.

"For our clients, we've used this serial stream for x,y coordinate data received from an inexpensive GPS receiver," Hrnicek said. "This allows a user to send his or her current location back to the server. So as the map screen is returned to the client machine, the user can see his or her current location in the map data. This last step is a bit of a stretch, but it works. And if you have the bandwidth -- like an 802.11b Wi-Fi network -- performance is as good as it is with local data."

Security and Internet abuse are major issues right now. An unauthorized user connecting to the site, someone intercepting the wireless signal or someone stealing the field device, can compromise security in a wireless setting.

Solutions to these problems include off-the-shelf hardware and software. By using two-factor authentication (with off-the-shelf middleware technology), encrypted data transmission (Waterford uses RSA Security's SecurID encryption), and encrypted data storage (more middleware), township staff found that wireless system security can be equal to or better than office network security.

"One strategy some organizations employ is to minimize the information stored on a PC's hard drive -- so even if the PC is stolen, it won't give away any secrets," Hrnicek said. "Of course, this scenario means the wireless connection must be always available, or the user has no access to the data."

To help prevent abuse of Internet privileges, Waterford restricts access to certain applications and Web sites based on user need, and developed policies for use of equipment and the Internet. The township also uses Internet monitoring software to check for possible Web-surfing abuse.

Best Solution for the Situation
The best wireless solution for one organization might not be the best solution for another. If an agency is not ready to go wireless, there are other solutions for data replication and dissemination.

Waterford went wireless because anything that allows instant communication among knowledgeable people can result in quick decisions and money saved. After conducting the pilot, staff is prepared for full implementation when the technology catches up -- which will be sooner rather than later.

"Pay close attention to cellular and other wireless issues in the coming months," Hrnicek said. "As connection solidifies and speeds increase, you'll want to act fast if you know you're going wireless."
Terry Biederman Contributing Writer