"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."

Adam Stone  |  Contributing Writer