What good is a map if you can't read it when you need it? This is a fundamental question that's plagued GIS planners in San Diego, who've been searching for a convenient way to get geographic data to mobile city and county workers.
"The problem is all about accessibility of data," said Andrew Abouna, executive director of the San Diego Geographic Information Source (SanGIS), whose job it is to maintain and promote the use of a regional geographic data warehouse for the San Diego area.
Now Abouna said he found a solution - software that'll help SanGIS, a GIS partnership created in July 1997 between the city of San Diego and San Diego County, send GIS data to BlackBerry smartphones in the near future.
The issue, as Abouna describes it, is that mobile workers can carry map information on the go, but the information is static. A map on a laptop, for instance, can show the situation on the ground, but any change to that map can only show on the laptop if the device is synchronized at the home office. True mobility would mean the capacity to map evolving situations, such as missed service routes or the changing boundaries of a wildfire.
Nader Tirandazi is the IT group manager for the San Diego Office of the Mayor, and oversees IT throughout the city's public works agencies, including the Environmental Services Department. His office is working with SanGIS to build a prototype for channeling information about refuse collection to BlackBerry devices.
"This probably will be the most effective area for us," Tirandazi said. "Look at a missed trash stop. When a citizen calls for a missed pickup, you could actually send that order to a BlackBerry and a supervisor could look up that address on a map, send out the closest driver and then close out that work order."
Today that order is e-mailed to a manager's cell phone who then radios a driver. But there's no map functionality to show drivers' locations to assess which driver might be closest to the site.
Planners call this functionality a big leap forward, but does a BlackBerry really make more sense than a laptop for this kind or work? Yes and no.
It's technically feasible, and no less difficult, to push GIS data out to a laptop. All things being equal, Abouna says the BlackBerry format has many advantages.
"Size really is the issue," he said. For workers on the road, especially emergency workers looking for easy access to location information, the handheld device is, well, easier to handle. "You could do it with a laptop, but obviously it is bigger and more cumbersome, which makes it less user-friendly. It also has a longer startup time as compared to a handheld device."
To this extent, handhelds would appear to have a decided advantage for employees needing to access GIS data.
The fact that the smaller devices are easier to use is reflected by the fact that many city and county employees already buy the handhelds for their own purposes, despite the fact that government authorities aren't yet paying for these devices, Abouna said.
As prototype applications start to come online, he speculated, supervisors may begin to acquire BlackBerries for their workers. Among other things, prototypes might help supervisors see which employees could benefit most from these devices. Less clear is the long-term cost of ownership of a handheld versus a laptop. Abouna expects this will factor in if and when government offices begin to acquire BlackBerries.
Despite its convenient size and other advantages, the BlackBerry may not to be a perfect fit for all occasions.
"There are areas within the business units where the laptop would be more instrumental," Tirandazi said. If a particular application is exceptionally data-heavy, or if users require a highly detailed view of a map, the big screen and the processing muscle of a laptop may be required. "I have seen quite a few demonstrations of BlackBerries and Treos, of pushing information out into the field [with these devices], but you really have to look at the level of information, the amount of data and how you would expect to be able to see it."
Nonetheless, the convenient size and low cost encouraged Tirandazi to embrace the handhelds.
"I would rather put everything out on BlackBerries," he said, "because they are the least expensive tools."
Putting It to Work
SanGIS is just now developing its first BlackBerry-based applications. A pilot with the San Diego Environmental Services Department has been put on the back burner for now.
That application would map out refuse-truck routes, allow supervisors to map the location of missed pickups and simplify the process of rerouting drivers as needed.
Another early application might involve land surveying. A field worker could query the GIS database for information based on land value, owner name and especially property lines. "Let's say code enforcement is in the field, and they need to verify zoning or ownership of a particular parcel," Abouna said. "With this they wouldn't have to bring all their paperwork with them ahead of time."
Driven by Freeance Mobile software, these applications could also be used to make custom forms that would let field workers collect data onsite and file it virtually automatically.
Abouna points to the prospect of a field crew inspecting sewer pipes or water pipes. Perhaps the crew has three or four different sets of sizes to choose from for a given job. Rather than specifying item by item what's needed, a crewmember could simply indicate choices on a prepopulated, customized form.
Likewise, city officials might be assessing sidewalk conditions, using a fixed set of indicators. Here again, officials could use a preset form, designed to be accessed easily via a BlackBerry.
As envisioned, the system would also help city agencies make more effective use of their existing databases. The Environmental Services Department, for example, keeps a detailed database of locations, routes and incoming service calls. Right now there's no simple, automated way to provide that information to wireless users.
Abouna said he expects to use the new software to tap into that data, overlay it against other GIS information and make it available to workers in the field. Using a BlackBerry, mobile staff will be able turn off and on different layers of the map.
"They can do queries about the data," he said, "and if they want to record new information using GPS, they can do that using the same device and send it right back to the server."
A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.
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