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Supporting GIS and Mapping Solutions on Muddy Tablets

JD Axford, P.E. CESCL
I want to introduce you to a long time friend of mine J.D. Axford.  He is a civil engineer with all kinds of acronyms after his name (P.E., CESCL, etc.), who has worked for most of his career in the Northwest of the USA in and around water and mud.  He is a hero among the duck population for his many years working with wetlands.  He is you may say, an expert in outdoors field data collection.

I can remember a time about 25 years ago when J.D. and myself were perched above a waterfalls along the East Fork of the Lewis river in Washington state measuring water flow and collecting data together.  It was, in fact, cold and muddy work.

He shared with me recently the list of things he typically carries in his service backpack to collect data:
  • bubble levels
  • incline-ometers
  • rangefinders
  • GPS accurate enough to serve as an inspection-level pre-survey grade checker
  • wet papers
  • job reports
  • field notes
  • redline drawings
  • change orders
He is a big fan of finding ways of reducing the items in his backpack by utilizing mobile apps.  In this article J.D. shares his insights on data, data collection, mobile devices, GIS and how they are all used in utilities work.

Collecting data is a big job.  Utilities both generate and demand tremendous amounts of data. They are designed and operated with the use of a lot of geospatial and asset data.  Maintenance and repair work generates data, which is of particular importance in predicting future staffing needs, maintenance costs, and for the management of risks. In the distribution side (in electrical utilities) data is generated that is used to predict economics parameters, consumer demand, and other trends essential to profitability.

There is also a lot of data generated by field crews which comes from tasks related to vegetation control, drainage and other similar items. This work and the data generated are of increasing importance as infrastructure ages and budgets tighten. The information must be captured accurately by field staff and uploaded to geospatial databases and document management systems and then made available to all the stakeholders.

All of this data collection, especially the outdoor data collection, benefits from mobile devices. Think about the environment. Maintaining a utility grid requires working remotely, often in multiple locations per day and on a variety of different projects and issues.  A lot of data is collected in rugged, cold, damp and muddy locations.  In these environments, tablets are very useful as they are light-weight and offer the simultaneous ability to capture, store, query and process data.  Tablets can significantly reduce the time and effort needed to manage data if you can keep them from being damaged.

As important as tablets have become to many engineers and utilities, they still have limitations as memory is limited, the service environment can be harsh and connectivity lost. There is also the challenge related to different tablets using different operating systems.  Some GIS and mapping applications only support one operating system. Many of these limitations, however, can be solved by the right software.  Vendors like We-Do-IT of Australia have developed tablet-based GIS software solutions made to operate online and offline, on a wide variety of tablets and operating systems while integrating with most GIS and ERP systems.

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Kevin Benedict, Head Analyst for Social, Mobile, Analytics and Cloud (SMAC) Cognizant
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***Full Disclosure: These are my personal opinions. No company is silly enough to claim them. I am a mobility and SMAC analyst, consultant and writer. I work with and have worked with many of the companies mentioned in my articles.

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Kevin Benedict is the Senior Analyst for Digital Transformation at Cognizant, a writer, speaker and SAP Mentor Alumnus. Follow him on Twitter @krbenedict. He is a popular speaker around the world on the topic of digital transformation and enterprise mobility. He maintains a busy schedule researching, writing and speaking at events in North America, Asia and Europe. He has over 25 years of experience working in the enterprise IT solutions industry.