Mobile GIS – 2014 Edition

Windows_CE_logoIf there is one area “professional GIS” has failed it is in the mobile arena.  Crazy Windows CE, Java and other solutions just confuse and frustrate users.  Heck after coming back into the GIS consulting world I’ve picked up these handheld ArcPad GPS units and failed to be able to get them to work1.  There are some great Smartphone/Tablet solutions such as my favorite Fulcrum but they really fail on battery life2.

I’m always on the look out for better solutions to solve mobile GIS and the latest seems to be Windows Surface devices running Windows 8.  I’ve been getting a lot of requests internally to test the devices for data collection.  Most of it comes from the wish that users can run ArcGIS Desktop in the field.  We’ve been fighting this on the mobile side for years, but maybe we should just sit back and let them have their day with a hacked up Surface Pro 2 with USB GPS and a checked out ArcGIS Desktop Basic3 and be done with.

QGis_LogoThen again, what about standardizing on a PostGIS/QGIS field tool?  This solves a couple of issues for me including the licensing implications of having floating licenses in the field for days at a time.  I’m personally trying to reduce software licensing costs to a practical level and the unknown of who will check out extensions throws a wrench in it.  The beauty of a PostGIS/QGIS solution is in the freedom to send people in the field for data collection and not have licensing bite us in the rear.  I’m going to try to secure a Surface Pro 2 test-bed and see what such a PostGIS/QGIS field collection tool can do.

Plus once they get back into the office, sync the PostGIS data up and the GIS analysts can use it with their ArcGIS Desktop projects.  Win/win, right?


  1. To be fair, the older I get, the more confused I get with technology

  2. If you can’t tweet all day with your smartphone, how can you use the GPS?

  3. ArcView was so much easier to say

  • warren roberts

    Cybertracker.org is a free gps tool i use in my classes..incredibly customized and can be added to phone, trimble. i recommend

  • Bryan

    Another bonus with going the QGIS approach is the simplicity of creating custom data collection forms with the new drag & drop designer.

    • http://www.spatiallyadjusted.com/ James Fee

      Something I’m very interested in exploring

  • Jason

    I could have sworn I saw an awesome presentation about customizing QGIS for mobile data collection at WAURISA some years ago. May have had something to do with PyQT. Aaron Racicot maybe? Memory is failing… Bah.

  • Fish

    I totally agree on the suckiness of WinCE based collectors and whats even more depressing is the fact that vendors like Leica and Trimble still moves their geodetic software to that platform and calls it progress. One would have hoped that with the rise of good alternatives like android they could have jumped train, getting us users out of windows mobile device center hell.

    The use of QGis is an interesting way to go, both using the full version or using software like qmap (http://nathanw2.github.io/qmap/) Nathan Woodrows fieldcollector based on the QGis api. I am more uncertain using PostGIS for field collection, spontaneously I would have chosen Spatialite both for mbtiles basemaps and for the collected data. If you still try PostGIS for this, please blog about it, that would certainly be a good read.

    • http://www.spatiallyadjusted.com/ James Fee

      Spatialite is an option but I think I’d rather just go native PostGIS. We’ll see how this works out in the end.

    • Dave

      I think Nathan’s project has evolved. It is now on github under DMS-Aus/Roam (or something like that).

  • sbuscher

    If you struck other tablets from the list for battery life concerns, I don’t know how the surface is going to be any better. actually, the surface has poor battery life in comparison.

    • http://www.spatiallyadjusted.com/ James Fee

      Understood, its a compromise. iOS devices are difficult to get data on and some data can’t be synced to the cloud.

  • http://www.spatiallyadjusted.com/ James Fee

    The point isn’t so much to replace ArcGIS Desktop as it is to improve licensing constraints and mobile data collection. In the old days I would have thought MapObjects would have been a solution but for data collection QGIS might just be perfect. That and the licensing issues are non-existent.

  • RNagi

    have you tried ArcGIS collector app for smartphones: http://www.esri.com/software/arcgis/smartphones/collector-app

  • JRigs

    ArcGIS Desktop editing in the field? Not a common skill among the field folks where I work, not really an option for us (esp considering licensing – also, don’t you need to buy an extension to integrate GPS into Desktop?). We have to stick with customizing ArcGIS Mobile (previously we used ArcPad), which means crumby, buggy interfacing with Trimble Positions in order to meet accuracy requirements for certain projects. AGS Mobile itself is arguably good and the integration with AGS Desktop quite convenient (also look into Mobile licenses that are included with Desktop?), but Trimble Positions is certainly not good in many ways imo (just look at the fail browse dialogs from 1995). If you’re stuck with ESRI, I would say Desktop in the field is not the right way unless absolutely necessary for some reason. Get up to speed with Mobile – it’s not as bad as you might think.

    I would be very interested to hear if you are able to find a non-ESRI solution that can achieve sub-meter accuracy on par with post-processed Trimble data.

  • jakubbican

    This is video of our proof-of-concept solution built on MapGuide Desktop / Leaflet for Windows 8:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-53d_lUJd0

    It can handle a combination of online/offline data sources and render various raster and vector data. (We use SQLITE at the moment.)
    The performace is very good on i7 CPUs and acceptable on Atom CPUs.

  • Christopher McClain

    We are having some success using ArcGIS Online for Orgs and with the Esri ArcGIS apps for iOS and Android. Getting ready to launch phase two with expanded # of users and features. So far we have been able to stay within our current allotment of users and credits but phase three will require we purchase additional users.

  • Greg Morgan

    I am running JOSM on an old Dell mini netbook. It works just fine with one of the light weight Linux distros. $0 except for the hardware. JOSM has a boatload of plugins that include a live GPS feed plugin as I recall. The new plugin that may be of interest is the mbtiles plugin that was created by Ian Dees. So now you can use TileMill to create a reference set of tiles or bring along an aerial set of mbtiles. Go out in the field and add data. Save the data as a .osm file. Come back to the shop and ogr2ogr the .osm file into PostGIS or any other format. $0 license cost. On top of that you can add any attribute data that you want using the free form OSM tagging structure that JOSM supports. You can create a preset file to help with attribute data quality.