Mobile Apps: Geospatial Clutter or Smart Workflow?

by Janet Jackson, GISP and Steve Averett

Janet: I believe mobile applications
(apps) provide not just smart workflow, but very smart workflow.  Why?  Be-
cause incorporating a simple and cost-effective (sometimes free) portable digital application to increase your professional efficiency is very smart. But before you rush out to start acquiring apps, find out which apps might be worth your digital effort.

My apps research started by asking Google a simple question, “How many mobile apps are there?” The computer site gave me this answer: “As of late January 2011, there were more than 700,000 apps across iPhones, Android, Windows, Nokia, Blackberry, and other smaller platforms. There have been more than 14 billion downloads of apps.”

With that many apps out there and more created every day, it’s worth your effort to find out which ones will increase your workflow efficiency. To quote Bill Gates, “The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.”  So, finding out which app will magnify your efficiency is a good first step.
And those first steps can start from where you are sitting right now.  Begin by doing an internet search for apps for surveyors or search your county website to find specific apps that have been designed to increase the field-to-office workflow. And don’t forget to ask your coworkers (the ones with smartphones) which apps they use.

My Google search “apps for surveyors” returned 4.6 million selections.  Near the top of the list was Find a Control (by Critigen). Although I am not recommending any specific app, I thought this one would make a good example.  The basic description states that, “enabling field personnel to easily access NGS data on-the-go through their mobile devices provides easy access to information needed by users while in the field and eliminates trips to a connected location when control cannot be found. Find-A-Control provides users the ability to quickly and efficiently view survey control stations on a map, identify the quality and type of stations, and view NGS datasheets that summarize key geodetic information stored in the NGS database.”

The site outlined the key features, gave you some ideas for customization, and offered you case studies and a contact name and number for future assistance. You can also read a review of the app in the January PSM 2012 column “Harnessing GIS.”

GIS apps offer a wide variety of functions. Some are free, some are bundled with more complex software, and some don’t appear to be a “one-touch download and use” type of program. So be sure to read the fine digital print that accompanies each application so there are no negative surprises.

Now that you know a few basics about apps, you are ready to begin your search for the specific application that will magnify your productivity. You may not need to look any farther than your local GIS county website.
Mobile applications are often perceived as fun and clever.  Some are even viewed as informative and convenient.  The truth is mobile apps are quickly rising to the forefront of technology and evolving to create efficiencies in the workplace.  What used to be a convenient device to check the weather or kill time while waiting in line now supports applications on the Android and Apple platforms that can have life-and-death implications.  Doctors use mobile apps to check the availability of drugs.  Soldiers use them to follow troop movement on the ground.  The question here is, “How can they help surveyors and the land professional 

Through advancements in software, cell tower proliferation, and high-speed networks, mobile devices and applications are quickly progressing in the realm of GPS technology.  They’re not ready to replace your survey-grade total-station units just yet, but that day is coming.  In the meantime, mobile apps can be most helpful in assisting with your daily workflows and providing efficiencies in the field.  Instead of having to make that dreaded drive to the office to start your day, you can handle many of those tasks on the way to your work sites (assuming you’re not the one driving).

A quick search in the most popular mobile application stores will reveal apps that allow you to:
  • check the weather forecasts; 
  • navigate to unfamiliar job sites; 
  • review the position, signal strength, accuracy, speed, and acceleration of satellites; 
  • use an accurate compass and level; 
  • record your voice for taking notes to play back to yourself or coworkers;
  • access a desktop emulator to get important files back in the office or even on the laptop in your truck if you’ve walked too far away; 
  • locate a mobile device for when you lose your phone in the field; and, of course, 
  • access those popular calculator and distance/area conversion apps.
Local governments are even getting in on the game.  Orange County, North Carolina, is in the process of developing a mobile app based on its ARIES desktop application (  When you enter an address in ARIES, it returns all the information Orange County knows about that location, including parcel lines, ownership data, images, well and septic permit data, soil types, zoning, and other information that might be useful to a surveyor in the field.  The mobile app will allow you to forego entering an address and simply provide all that information for the GPS-based location where you are using your mobile device.

We live in a struggling economy where time has become a precious commodity.  Mobile-device manufacturers and application developers recognize the environment they are competing in and are rapidly evolving their products to create the efficiencies we need to get more done in less time.  If you survey the mobile device landscape, you will find a bevy of tools that will help you overcome the day-to-day challenges faced by a modern surveyor.  If not, don’t give up.  New and improved apps are always just around the corner.  In the meantime, you can play Angry Birds on your lunch break.

Janet Jackson, GISP, is certified as a GIS professional and is president of INTERSECT, a GIS consulting firm.   

Steve Averett is the GIS director for Orange County, North Carolina, and the former GIS manager for Gaston County, North Carolina. 

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