On the Move: How Mobile Technology is Changing the Way DNR Collects Spatial Data

When the iPhone came out in 2007, we had never seen the like: a smart phone with a large, relatively simple LCD screen you could operate by touch that would bring web pages to life in vivid color right there in your hand. Suddenly, smart phones were cool. Mainstream. We had to have one. Ten years later, most of us do.

Who could have guessed that devices tailor-made to deliver soup recipes, memes, and polarizing opinions in 140 characters or fewer would become the future of spatial data collection at a large land management agency such as DNR?

And yet, here we are.

Change is coming

Managing more than two million acres of public lands for everything from timber harvest to wheat farm leases technically does not require reams of spatial data. But it definitely helps.

Spatial data indicates where something is in relation to something else. Fed into a geographic information system (GIS), spatial data helps DNR locate, track, analyze, map, and ultimately manage the lands and resources in our care.

Trimble data collector.
Figure 1. Trimble data collector.

Currently, DNR field staff collect spatial data using global position system (GPS) receivers and data collectors, which are hand-held devices for entering data. The most common brand used at DNR is Trimble (Figure 1). Foresters use these devices to map streams or timber sale boundaries. Biologists use them to survey nest trees. Geologists use them to map potentially unstable areas. If their jobs are mostly reconnaissance, field staff may opt for a Garmin GPS, which is more limited in terms of data collection.

Trimble and Garmin collection devices have been solid workhorses at DNR for nearly a dozen years. But there are issues. First, Trimble data collectors run on a Windows Mobile operating system that has not been supported since 2008. Second, ESRI’s ArcPad, the software used to collect data on the Trimble devices, also is headed to extinction. (ESRI is the supplier of widely used mapping and geographic software.)

DNR will continue to use and support Trimble and Garmin collection devices as long as feasible, but when they fail, they will not be replaced. Why would they? Aside from the software issues, it is time for DNR’s technology to evolve. Tasks done on Trimble and Garmin collection devices now can be done on the ubiquitous smart phone or its larger cousin, the smart tablet. That is where ESRI is headed. That is where most everything is headed. Why? Because so many of us are using these small, portable devices, and because today’s smart phones and smart tablets can be as powerful as a desktop computer.

“New code is mostly being developed for smart devices. They are considered the most current tech platform,” says George Jenkins, an IT specialist in DNR’s South Puget Sound (SPS) Region headquartered in Enumclaw. “Private industry is already on board with using smart devices,” he added.

Avenza Maps and ESRI Collector

How can smart devices replace DNR’s Trimble and Garmin collection devices? One way is through Avenza Maps, which is software designed to read a georeferenced PDF map. “Georeferenced” means the PDF has location coordinates that relate the map to a location in physical space.

Avenza Maps on a smart phone
Figure 2. Avenza Maps on a smart phone. The blue dot indicates where you are. Shown here is a georeferenced briefing map for the Chelan Complex fire.

One useful feature of Avenza Maps is its ability to show users where they are in relation to the map. Because the smart device is pulling in a GPS signal or triangulating location from cell towers, users will see a blue dot on the screen for their current location (Figure 2). That dot should move when they do. “No matter where you go, there you are” takes on new meaning with these maps.

These maps work whether users have cellular coverage or not because maps can be cached to their smart devices before they leave cellular coverage. Maps are available in the Avenza Maps online store, or users can make their own using GIS.

Avenza Maps also can be used to collect data. For example, a DNR biologist can set a point on the map for a marbled murrelet platform tree, enter descriptive information, and even take a photo linked to that point. The biologist can record the route he or she took to reach that tree. And the points, lines, and polygons collected with Avenza Maps can be saved as shape files and brought into a GIS program like ESRI’s ArcGIS.

One enthusiastic user of Avenza Maps is Alan Mainwaring, a biologist with DNR’s South Puget Sound Region. Alan was an early adopter of mobile technology; his first smart phone was a Blackberry, with its tiny screen and rows of little buttons. The modern smart phone “is like having a file cabinet full of information that is always with you,” he said.

For field work, Alan points out that with a georeferenced PDF “you can easily find your way to places you have never been.” Such maps proved highly useful at the Chelan Complex fire in 2015 (Figure 2). He also notes that a georeferenced PDF can make it easier for users to direct someone to their location in the event of an emergency.

Avenza Maps is a good choice for many of DNR’s programs. It is inexpensive, easy to use, and has data collection capabilities sufficient for many tasks. Its appeal is reflected in its use: DNR IT specialist Jeffrey Holden estimates that at least 500 DNR staff are using it already. However, DNR also needs a way to collect more complex information, particularly on projects that involve multiple team members. For that, DNR selected ESRI’s Collector, or Collector for short.

Collector is an example of “mobile GIS,” which means (as it sounds) taking GIS out of the office and into the field. Collector enables users in the field to view and collect spatial data on a smart phone or tablet and upload (sync) that data directly into a geodatabase, which is a database capable of holding spatial data.

Similar to Avenza, Collector can be used without cellular coverage. Everything needed can be saved to a smart device before users leaves for the field, and the data collected can be synced when they return to coverage.

Because Collector is designed for those with little or no GIS experience, it is simple to use. Assuming they have Collector installed, users can log onto ArcGIS online (ESRI’s cloud server) and download a “web map” to their devices (Figure 3). (Downloading is not necessary if users will be working in an area with coverage; they can simply open the map from the Collector application and start using it.)

Web maps available on ArcGIS Online
Figure 3. Web maps available on ArcGIS Online (Tablet shown).
 web map with a base map and data layer
Figure 4. A web map with a base map and data layers. The user clicked on the red polygon to bring up its attributes.

Designed to view and collect data, the web map likely will contain a base map for reference, a number of map layers, and tables with related, non-spatial information (“attribute tables”) (Figure 4). If the web map was designed for information and navigation only, most of those layers and attribute tables likely will be locked to prevent editing. If the web map was designed for collecting specific types of data, it may contain a number of empty map layers for collecting new points, lines, or polygons.

To begin collecting data, users tap on the new feature tab (Figure 5) and then select the layer for the type of point, line, or polygon they wish to collect.

Layers for collecting a new feature.
Figure 5. Layers for collecting a new feature.

If the new feature is a point, Collector can add a point to the map right where they are standing. Or they can tap the map where they wish the point to be. If the new feature is a line or polygon, they can draw it on the map or ask Collector to drop points on the map at intervals as they walk. They also can enter non-spatial information into the attribute table (Figure 6) and even take a photo and attach it to the table.

Collector also can be configured to open a custom-built form in an ESRI application called “Survey 123.” (Users must have Survey 123 loaded on their smart device for this to work). Survey 123 can be used to enter information that is too complex for the simple attribute tables in Collector (Figure 7).

Table for entering non-spatial data.
Figure 6. Simple table for entering non-spatial data.

Once collected, spatial and non-spatial data can be synced to the geodatabase with one tap of a button. If users do not have cell coverage where they are, the data will be stored on their device to sync later, as mentioned previously.

Once the data is synced, anyone with access to the geodatabase can view it. The advantages of that are many. Say a project involves multiple people fanning out into different areas to collect data. Periodically, those people could return to an area with coverage and upload what they collected. The project manager can review it on the spot and provide feedback. That might save a trip back out to the field later to correct something. Someone in the office working on the database who notices a problem or needs to make an update can do so, and if they have cellular coverage, the people in the field will have those updates before they climb back in the truck.

Figure 7: Form created with Survey 123

The alternative is for DNR staff to continue using Trimble collection devices as they do now: finish collecting, drive back to the office, transfer the data from the device to the network, and then post-process the data. That takes time. How much time? Well, consider the Pacific Cascades Region, headquartered in Castle Rock. Region foresters “put up anywhere from 40 to 60 timber sales per year, and work on three years’ worth of timber sales at once,” says Shawn. Time spent on repetitive layout tasks can add up. With Collector, field staff possibly can spend more time doing what they typically want to do: work in the woods, not in the office.

What about the position accuracy of smart devices? Currently, the GPS in smart devices typically ranks toward the bottom of the scale in terms of accuracy.

No problem, explains Shawn. Smart devices can be linked with small, wireless Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) receivers (Figure 8) to boost position accuracy. Just like GPS, GNSS receivers pull signals from satellites to determine a position on the globe. But whereas a GPS device pulls in signals from a US-controlled satellite constellation, a GNSS device receives signals from multiple satellite constellations controlled by multiple countries. A GNSS receiver is more accurate than a GPS receiver because it has access to more satellites.

GNSS receiver.
Figure 8. GNSS receiver. Photo courtesy of Compass Tools, Inc.

Also, smart device technology is improving all the time. As George points out, in 2018 or 2019 GNSS receivers may be integrated into smart devices via a new computer chip. That chip could give smart devices accuracy down to the centimeter. This type of accuracy is where the smart device industry is headed, thanks to consumer demand.

Next Steps

The transition to smart devices at DNR has begun, but it will take time. DNR IT specialists are developing and documenting workflows for using the new equipment and software, producing georeferenced maps for Avenza and base maps for Collector, and developing instructions and other information. In the meantime, DNR staff will continue to use older devices (Figure 9).

devices currently in use at DNR.
Figure 9. Jeffrey Holden and all of the devices currently in use at DNR.

So how does the future look? It might involve viewing and picking up projects from fellow employees using a shared geodatabase updated through Collector. It might require fewer trips from the field to the office. It might even involve topping a truck with an antenna and cell phone booster, a small device that can make it easier to pick up a cellular signal in a remote area.

Regardless, it is clear that the future is here. And it involves a smart device.


by Cathy Chauvin, DNR Forest Resources Division