What is Mobile GIS? Key Traits & Uses

Mobile GIS brings the power and complexity of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data into the field and onto the screen of your mobile device.

New to GIS? Check out Unearth's introductory guide.

But it’s also so much more than mere GIS mapping on a phone or tablet.

Ultimately, an effective Mobile GIS is designed to connect the office and the field - and this entails empowering boots on the ground with three things:

  1. A context-rich map
  1. Intuitive data collection tools
  1. Streamlined communication

If a “Mobile GIS” fails on any of these three fronts, it fails in bridging the gap that exists between field and office teams.

Too often, software is labeled “Mobile GIS” but is too complex for field users, doesn’t play nice with other applications, or has a poorly designed interface - creating siloes rather than dissolving them.

But this doesn’t have to be the case. Effective Mobile GIS exists - it’s just a matter of understanding what to look for. Let’s start with a brief overview of Mobile GIS before examining key traits in a little more detail.

What Is Mobile GIS? (In a Nutshell)

To understand Mobile GIS, it’s important to understand its predecessor: Desktop GIS (aka “legacy GIS”).

Mobile GIS operates on a phone or tablet while Desktop GIS is installed directly onto a desktop or laptop computer. One depends on the cloud while the other is stored locally.

However, mobility and cloud storage aren’t what truly set Mobile GIS apart. At the heart of Mobile GIS is ease of use. Its counterpart requires specialized training to learn.

Organizations hire specialists to implement Desktop GIS and oversee a complicated system of record - detailed information on every mapped asset. This work involves complex data management, processing, and analytics.

In contrast, Mobile GIS takes data from these back-office systems and represents it in a digestible format that anyone can use - making GIS actionable.

A construction crew using Mobile GIS on a tablet.

Why is Mobile GIS important?

Mobile GIS is built with a different purpose in mind than Desktop GIS.

It unites teams across an organization through streamlined field work management, collaboration, and data collection.

Even if someone doesn’t know what GIS is, they can still use Mobile GIS to:

  • Look up information about an asset and communicate with team members about work
  • Easily navigate the field by seeing themselves and the location of their work on a map
  • Collect key information that can then be transferred to their system of record, which may be a Desktop GIS

Without Mobile GIS, field crews don’t have the tools and spatial intelligence they need to do their work efficiently. They’re left with analog, paper-based workflows or clunky field software, which risk perpetuating siloes, confusion, bad data, and delays.

Check out Unearth’s overview of GIS software for a more in-depth comparison of Mobile and Desktop GIS. Plus, explore how GIS data is captured in Unearth’s blog: Our Favorite GIS Data Collection Tools in 2022.

Mobile GIS vs. Online GIS

Mobile GIS is a relatively new technology, so there are many names for the same thing. 

However, while Mobile GIS can be called “Field GIS,” it’s different from “Online GIS.” This is an important distinction to make as you’re assessing your team’s technology needs.

Online GIS is sometimes called “Web GIS” and “Cloud GIS” because the GIS is stored online in the cloud. Again, this is in contrast to Desktop GIS that’s loaded locally to a computer.

Mobile GIS is a subcategory of Online GIS since most mobile devices don’t have the storage or power to run a GIS software locally, but not all Online GIS is mobile or built for the field.

Why do these definitions matter?

Takeaway #1: Online GIS isn’t sufficient on its own

It’s important to have a Mobile GIS even if you already have a back-office Online GIS that stores everything in the cloud.

With the rise of cloud storage, many Desktop GIS applications have shifted to the cloud but have yet to develop mobile tools that successfully connect field and office.

a utility worker using mobile GIS on an iphone

Takeaway #2: “Mobile GIS” is a promise rarely kept

These Desktop GIS applications that have shifted to the cloud often release “Mobile GIS.” But these mobile apps are built on a complex infrastructure and remain very challenging to use.

In other words, mobile apps claiming to be “Mobile GIS” but failing to support the field may be built with a very different purpose and audience in mind. Online GIS may have an app but remain identical to Desktop GIS in complexity, still require the support of GIS specialists, or be designed more for back-office analytics than boots on the ground.

It’s critical to know the actual purpose and capabilities of a GIS application - even if the label “Mobile GIS” has been tacked on by a software company’s marketing team.

So how do you navigate this maze of field apps and competing claims? How do you find true “Mobile GIS”? The answer is simple: Understand what you need in the field.

Take a deeper dive into Online GIS in Unearth’s definitive guide on GIS.

6 Key Traits to Look for in Mobile GIS

Not every Mobile GIS is created equal. There are six key traits to look for as you evaluate the technologies on the market.

These traits return again and again to a simple question: What does it mean for GIS to be truly “built for the field”?

1. Mobile apps that actually work

This may seem obvious. But not every platform has mobile apps that work.

A company will advertise GIS apps, but not invest adequate resources in the user experience and mobile tools. Desktop GIS pasted onto a smaller screen isn’t Mobile GIS. 

Additionally, GIS needs to be accessible offline to be truly “mobile.” Users should be able to download a section of their map and add data - like an inspection - even when they’re out of service.

A field team should be able to carry Mobile GIS in their back pocket wherever work takes them. That may be into a suburban neighborhood or up the slopes of a mountain.

a utility worker inspecting power lines with mobile gis

2. Intuitive GIS visualization

As the name suggests, Mobile GIS must be able to import, visualize, and export GIS data. Sounds like a no-brainer, right?

But can workers actually find the information that they need on the map? And the location of their work? Mobile GIS needs to make sense to a non-specialist.

Many of the features that make back-office GIS so powerful need to be stripped away - so anyone can see their data in one or two clicks, and use intuitive filters and search functions to find what they need.

GIS Without the Degree: Discover how a researcher leveraged Mobile GIS to map chemical weapons and a skydiver used the technology to document a cross-country road trip.

several pins stuck into a paper map

3. Simple yet powerful data collection

Ultimately, Mobile GIS should be the easiest part of a field worker’s day.

The real test: How long does it take to onboard a new user? How long before they start navigating the map, capturing data, and making annotations? How long before they’re training their peers?

If you’re in talks with a software provider, make sure you have a representative from the field, who can see the GIS in action. Does it make sense to the people who will be using it? Can they start a trial and take it for a spin?

GIS in the Field: See how Mobile GIS is transforming the day-to-day work of field crews in Cincinnati, Ohio.

4. A connected technology ecosystem

GIS is only one piece of the puzzle.

For any job, people need information from several different sources: the what, where, when, why, and how of their work.

What’s their job? Where are the equipment, materials, and work located? When must it be completed? Why is the job important to their team’s objectives? And how do they complete and document the job?

Information from a GIS only partially answers these questions.

Often, field work depends on additional documentation from six or more tools:

  • Enterprise resource planning (ERP)
  • Enterprise asset management system (EAMS)
  • Engineering tools (2D, 3D, and 4D models)
  • Project and field work management (e.g., assignments, financials, schedules, drawings)
  • Reality insights (e.g., IoT, sensors, vehicle tracking, monitoring, prediction)
  • Geographic Information System (GIS)

The challenge is teams must juggle several different applications to find the data they need to get the job done. Not only is this inefficient but it risks data silos and miscommunication.

Ideally, a Mobile GIS can integrate directly with your existing systems or simply import the necessary data types - so everything you need is stored and visualized in one place.

Why?

This improves productivity and helps streamline field-to-office communication - the ultimate purpose of all Mobile GIS.

siloed systems connected through mobile gis

5. A whole lot more than GIS

By connecting your technology ecosystem, Mobile GIS should support a whole lot more than GIS.

You should be able to dump a folder of photos and see them geo-located against your map. Have a construction blueprint or 3D engineering model? That, too, should be easy to map.

Simply have spreadsheets? Or a PDF map of a landscape or buildings? You should be able to turn those into GIS data as well. In the end, anyone should be able to map the data that they have - whatever format it comes in.

By being “data agnostic,” Mobile GIS empowers: 

  1. Users who have a complex, mixed dataset that originates from several separate systems

AND

  1. Users who don’t even have a GIS to begin with but would like to get started in GIS or simply benefit from the insights that a project map provides

This is the true power and potential of Mobile GIS: not only extending GIS into the field but equipping users for whom GIS has been historically out of reach.

6. Independence from your system of record

Last but not least, your Mobile GIS should be independent from your system of record.

This comes naturally with a Desktop GIS, where data is stored locally and anything from a Mobile GIS must be manually transferred over.

However, when your Mobile GIS and Online GIS system of record are both stored in the cloud, this could become an issue. Field workers shouldn’t be able to permanently change your system of record from their mobile device.

Yes, implementing advanced roles - viewer, manager, admin, etc. - does control who has access to what information and will limit errors. But mistakes are still made. Especially when a field crew is busy with what is often a complex and physically demanding project.

To prevent errors from entering your record, look for a Mobile GIS that requires simple, manual import and export. This way, you can have someone review everything that’s new from the field and act as a last line of defense before it’s entered in the back-office.

Your GIS team will thank you.

Applications of Mobile GIS: Construction, Utilities & More

While Mobile GIS’s applications are endless, one use case is clear: the built world.

Mobile GIS serves as a replacement for paper-heavy workflows and clunky field applications for critical infrastructure providers.

It’s a powerful tool in construction, ongoing operations and maintenance, resiliency planning, and emergency response.

Explore Mobile GIS in the following industries:

Construction

Telecom

Oil & Gas

Urban Planning

Utilities

different applications of mobile gis on cell phones

Why the Field Needs Mobile GIS

Though fairly new on the scene, Mobile GIS will continue to expand anywhere there’s work to be done in the world.

To recap, there are three reasons why this is the case:

1. Paper still reigns supreme

Many crews still rely on paper to understand their job and document their field work. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise that these workflows are less effective than digital data collection.

four construction workers referencing a paper map

2. There’s a need for digital field tools

Few organizations are untouched by digital transformation today. But the field is often the last to see this innovation.

Though powerful work and project management tools exist, there aren’t many field applications that are truly easy-to-use or deliver on their promise to dissolve siloes.

3. Maps just make sense to people.

Stored in a spreadsheet or folder structure, your data’s missing a critical dimension: real-world location. A map adds context to your data and uncovers insights that might be buried in columns and rows.

Plus, GIS is on the rise.

an aerial view of a construction site

Industries that have historically avoided GIS - like construction - are beginning to leverage this data type as GIS grows more accessible, reporting is standardized, and siloes dissolve between stakeholders along an asset’s entire lifecycle.

For many, the future is GIS. Fortunately, Mobile GIS serves as an affordable and approachable starting point.

Interested in getting started with Mobile GIS?

We’re excited about GIS at Unearth because we’ve created a Mobile GIS of our own: OnePlace.

Get started with a 14-day free trial, learn how OnePlace connects office and field, and explore the products we’ve built through our Mobile GIS.

Mobile GIS on a desktop computer and mobile device

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