While many users of consumer mapping applications are aware of the problems encountered with Apple's recently released Apple Maps, there is less understanding about the vast differences between consumer mapping applications and the professional capabilities available in a geographic information system (GIS). This difference is particularly critical for public works departments since both consumer and professional mapping applications are commonly available on smartphones and other portable devices, which are very useful in the field.
Briefly, a consumer mapping application such as Apple Maps or those offered by Google or Microsoft are designed for locational and navigational purposes, while a GIS includes powerful analytical capabilities. The ability to display a location on a computer screen with a consumer mapping application is useful, but very different from the ability to use that map to coordinate and compare data or draw analytical conclusions. That's what a GIS does. In the past, the use of GIS in the government sector was restricted to server and desktop platforms because of hardware constraints, security considerations, and the need for specialized technical staff to operate and maintain the system, but with the advent of cloud computing, that has begun to change and rich GIS data is now available in the field.
Public works departments can use free Web maps such as those available in Google Maps, Bing Maps, or Apple Maps to highlight specific features, such as streetlights, manhole covers, or fire hydrants for maintenance purposes. Those features are overlaid on a general basemap that depicts landmarks such as roads and property lines, for easy visual identification by field crews. You can see a road and, with a provided measuring tool, perhaps even figure out how long it is, but you cannot determine from the map whether that road is concrete or asphalt, what the speed limit is, when it was last paved, or any of the other many details critical to today's public works departments.
This is where GIS data comes in. GIS was created to solve problems in addition to presenting information on a map. A GIS attaches many sources of information – databases, pictures, CAD files, scanned documents, and even other maps – to a map's features. Its built-in analytical tools can identify trends and patterns based on location and even time. These capabilities transform a static or flat map into a dynamic map that can be used to proactively manage that road.
A GIS is also editable, old features can be removed and new data collected in the field can be transmitted back to the office via mobile GIS devices for analysis and to update the GIS database – or geodatabase – on the fly. That information can, in turn, be quickly distributed to managers and the public. The cloud makes the functions of an office-based GIS available when a user needs them and from wherever that user is.
The Tacoma Narrows Bridge looked "melted" in the new Apple Maps app because the image of it in the basemap was stretched and flattened and that image could not be easily swapped out.
"Users can make decisions about assets in the office, the field, and even on the weekend at home from a smartphone," said David Totman, public works industry manager at Esri. "A successful enterprise GIS includes people, hardware, software, data, and related business processes. In the past, such resources often exceeded public works budgets and expertise."
Cloud-based services are changing that. For example, Esri's ArcGIS Online, a GIS subscription service, allows users to create, manage, and store maps and applications online in Esri's cloud. Subscribers can find existing maps relevant to their work by searching an extensive catalog of data with keywords related to a subject which can be mapped by using ready-to-use viewers.
The choice for field work is no longer between free, non-GIS maps and a major hardware investment to create your own GIS. Cloud services have enabled better quality GIS for public works departments with only a subscription.
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