GIS: Meet Mobile and Cloud Technology

Bryan Purdy, SVP-IT, Buxton
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Bryan Purdy, SVP-IT, Buxton

The science of mapping has taken a massive leap forward over the past twenty years. My early experiences with GIS—from watching my father purchase a fold-out map to tracking through a U.S. Army land navigation course in the early 90’s—are nothing compared to the technology available today. Not only are we seeing companies push the boundaries of what can be captured visually, but we are also seeing the adoption of GIS and spatial analytics across nearly every industry.

Two of the factors that are helping to fuel new GIS capabilities are various mobile and cloud technologies. Both mobile and cloud, if implemented properly, offer a variety of benefits that can make a huge impact not only on utilization of internal resources but also on customer retention and engagement with your product.

"In order to build an effective mobile GIS platform, you must make how your users interact with your platform the top priority"

Is Your Platform Ready for Mobile?

Mobile has been a slippery slope for some and a challenge not worth exploring for others. The simple fact is that mobile is here to stay.

In the GIS space and more specifically, spatial analytics, most development efforts have lost sight of the customer experience. Although GIS is complex, mobile customers need ease of use. Keep It Simple and Straightforward (KISS) is an approach organizations need to effectively incorporate into development efforts. This approach, in addition to some of the more user-friendly mobile frameworks such as Bootstrap, helps development teams increase user satisfaction and ease of use.

Mobile Considerations

In order to build an effective mobile GIS platform, you must make how your users interact with your platform the top priority. In spatial analytics, the way a user interacts with an application on desktop versus on mobile varies greatly.

For example, a retail real estate analyst may use a desktop application to answer complex questions about sales cannibalization and competitive pressure using layers of data on competitive presence, existing customers, and current store locations. A desktop can be a very powerful analytical tool if used properly.

On the other hand, a mobile device, or more specifically a mobile device in a field operator’s hand, is not used the same way. A field operator may just want to take a photo of a potential location and/or mark that location with a few coordinates and notes to have an analyst review later. Not only is the field operator hoping to complete a simple task, but he or she wants that task to be completed in a very logical, simple “few clicks” way.

As you can see, these are two very simple but very different use cases for the same application that are device driven. With mobile, actual user experience must be accounted for and addressed from day one.

As you evaluate your mobile efforts, ask yourself these questions:

• Do you understand how your customers operate in the field?
• Are you listening to what your customers are asking for regarding mobile?
• Is your mobile platform or approach too complex or too “noisy”?
• Do you follow a KISS approach?

Here Comes the Cloud

In addition to the impact that mobile technology is having on the GIS industry, cloud implementation is also transforming the field. There are a variety of providers in the cloud space, each with different advantages and tools. Microsoft, Google, and AWS (Amazon Web Services) are all large providers in the industry, with the latter being the Goliath.

Cloud technology benefits GIS providers on multiple fronts, especially in regard to reliability, scalability, flexibility and economies of scale. Without going into specific details for each of these areas, there are a few things you should evaluate regardless of your industry or development efforts.

Cloud Considerations

Infrastructure reliability is something all cloud providers have been claiming for some time, but some shine more than others with 99.99x uptime, ease of failover options and proper host redundancy either in a single region or across the country. For web development, reliability and uptime is crucial.

Scalability is a hot topic for most customers, whether it is typical seasonality or an infrastructure ramp-up for a large project on the horizon. For example, AWS’ ability to implement auto scaling allows your application to scale based on the business requirements you put in place.

Flexibility is something all organizations cherish. Whether you are a small company focused on open source options to keep costs low, or a larger organization wanting to stand up 75 Windows Application Servers to handle everything from database development to map layer processing, there is no issue too small or too large to be addressed with the hardware available from cloud providers.

In my opinion, the most important feature of cloud technology is economies of scale, which yield cost savings that, get passed to the consumer. Whether it is starting up one of the largest servers in the industry for a few dollars an hour, or storing terabytes of information for as little as a few dollars a month, it is nearly impossible to match the cost savings provided by the cloud. Additionally, using cloud technology may allow your company to convert parts of your data center from a capital expense to an operating expense, giving IT the ability to move more freely with the overall organization. Finally, by moving more of your infrastructure to the cloud, your costs, and better yet your profits, will flow with the nature of the market and not be fixed to expiring assets.

As you consider implementing cloud technology, ask yourself these questions:

 • Do you have technical areas of your business that are unreliable?
 • Are there processes you run that take too long to complete?
 • How much are you paying for data storage?
 • Are capital expenditures adding up and proving unreliable or lacking flexibility?

The Bottom Line

Both mobile and cloud technologies continue to improve and evolve, challenging GIS development teams to stay in tune with trends and end user expectations. Taking advantage of these offerings is something each organization must evaluate in order to provide a cutting-edge user experience.

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