Adopting Mobile GIS

Adopting Mobile GIS Solutions: Recommendations and Lessons Learned

Important lessons learned from six years of implementations and thousands of hours in the field

With the end of 2016 approaching, it has become commonplace for GPS users to already be utilizing a Mobile GIS solution or thinking about how to replace their old handheld GPS, paper datasheets, and digital camera with a Mobile GIS solution.  But that was not the case even a few years ago when Mobile GIS users were in the minority by far.

I got my first experience with Mobile GIS working as a field biologist back when I didn’t even know what it was in 2010.  I had a great birdwatching app called birdcountr for my iPhone that would allow me to set up a location for my survey and then enter bird sightings by species and number.  And the GIS side came from the fact that it would record the latitude and longitude of each entry allowing me to later export the file as a .kmz file for viewing in Google Earth.  This made conducting biological surveys and writing my field reports much easier by eliminating the paper data sheet component and eliminating the need to transcribe paper notes to my computer.  However, the problem was that the accuracy of the iPhone was terrible (iPhone 6 and iPad Air internal GPS tested HERE at 6.5 meters [95% CI]).

As I began to use this data collection app on my iPhone more, I began to wonder why my $8,000 yellow and black handheld GPS was dumber than my $200 smartphone.  From there, I picked up an iPad and began exploring more robust Mobile GIS apps for general field data collection with the hopes of ditching the expensive handheld GPS for good.  I was able to do that once iOS compatible Bluetooth submeter GNSS receivers came on the scene and I have never looked back.

Here are a couple papers that I published based on discussions about the increased efficiency Mobile GIS gave us over the old handheld method:

Using Tablets in the Field: A Case Study

Tablets for Increased Efficiency of Aerial Surveys

Recommendations For Switching To Mobile GIS

Below are some of the lessons I learned over the years on my own and working with a great GIS guy at Ecology and Environment.  These recommendations should help you jump start your adoption of a Mobile GIS solution and we are here to help with everything from software exploration to tablet and GNSS equipment rentals and sales.

  1. Evaluate every aspect of your data collection needs and all the types of paper datasheets you will need to create in your mobile GIS app of choice. Does your preferred app really do everything you need it to?
    • If not, better save the heartburn and investigate other software options.
    • It is possible that no off the shelf GIS app solutions will work for you, however, I caution against creating your own internally maintained application.  
    • I have seen many company’s invest the time and capital in creating their own software only to have it become more expensive and not perform the way they had envisioned.
  2. No matter what solution you go with, GET CELLULAR SERVICE ON YOUR TABLET!
    • Of all the iPad field surveys that I have conducted, a few were done with wi-fi only iPads.  Nothing is more detrimental to effective and efficient fieldwork than the lack of cellular service and all the benefits it provides, even in remote areas.
    • There are times your field crews will forget to cache a map or download a map tile, download a data form, need an update to a map or data form, or backup a day’s worth of field data.  If they can download what they need from the field or within a short drive to somewhere with cell service; you could potentially save an entire day’s worth of work compared to leaving the field site completely to find wi-fi.
    • Cellular service also gives field teams the ability to conduct Internet searches for something they (or you) might not have thought to take with them.  For example, things like photos of a weed species, an agency T&E species list, or instructions for a particular type of survey that they don’t perform on a regular basis.
  3. Carefully determine what level of accuracy you need for your external GNSS unit.  If you buy all 1 meter or 2.5-meter units and then decide you need sub-meter, you could be out $1,000’s of dollars on equipment that didn’t achieve the accuracy you needed.
    • Never rely on your tablet’s internal GPS for location data!
    • Also, if you collect monitoring points at 2.5-meter accuracy and then try to return to them with 2.5-meter accuracy, your GPS will be trying to relocate that same point in an area of 19.6 square meters!
  4. Never update your mobile app during the first two weeks of a new version release, and that includes OS update.
    • App updates are meant to fix problems, but they often introduce new problems that are worse than the problems it was meant to fix.
    • Recommend not updating any apps unless something stops functioning correctly, or a new version introduces new functions that you want to access.
  5. NEVER update to a new OS version during the first month or two of its release


It is critical to plan for each stage and understand the full workflow involved with adopting a mobile GIS system.  Knowing potential bottlenecks can better prepare you for a successful deployment.

Here at Anatum Field Solutions, we have assisted many municipalities, environmental, engineering, and utility companies in switching to a Mobile GIS solution and we are ready to help you too.  We can help with equipment rentals to help offset start-up capital expenses or we can assist with sales, and we have a lot of insight into Esri’s mobile systems from ArcGIS Online to Collector to Survey 123 and how to get them working together!