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Harnessing the power of mobile GIS apps to simplify field work and save time, money

November 18, 2020

By Cristian Graf and Mathieu Arcand

Custom-designed apps provide real-time information to project teams and clients

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the digital shift of many companies. Geographic information system (GIS) technology is playing a key role in that transformation, particularly for mobile applications. These often-unknown apps support a wide range of activities—planning road projects, developing new residential neighborhoods, and responding to environmental disasters are a few examples.

But what exactly are mobile GIS apps? They are secure applications that use georeferenced data to locate objects on Earth. Every app is custom designed to meet project needs, regardless of the sector. The app allows teams, for example those who perform field surveys, to gather and transmit information from a smartphone or tablet, using its integrated GPS. The information is accessible in real time for project teams and clients. Mobile apps deliver considerable advantages for projects and can save time and money. Here’s a look at how they help.

Mobile geomatics apps put a wealth of information at one’s fingertips.

Simplifying field work

In recent years, we have helped develop hundreds of customized apps to support our environmental, transportation, buildings, infrastructure, power, and telecommunications teams. Our primary goal is to simplify field work and make projects more efficient.

Let’s take the example of a biologist who needs to determine the boundary of a wetland for a future residential project. To do this, she must go into the field and identify the plants indicative of a wetland. In the past, the biologist wrote everything on paper and entered the data into a computer back at the office. She also had to upload many photos to document her report. Digitizing and manually transcribing information is time consuming and can lead to errors. Now, her site visit is much simpler. From the moment she arrives, the biologist simply accesses her mobile GIS app. With a few clicks, she can easily enter data using predetermined dropdown lists for such things as the types of plants found in wetlands, the site’s unique features, and the weather conditions. The app also provides accurate geolocation data and other relevant site information, such as the presence of waterways, and the exact lot boundaries. Our biologist can also send her site photos via the app.

As soon as information is input, it is saved to a database hosted on a secure web platform and is simultaneously accessible to both the project team and the client. In just a few clicks, information is collected, entered, and ready for analysis by our team. Gone are the tiresome days of working with paper and the delays it causes. It is also possible to add voice recordings and sketches, or digitally mark up photos or plans. Everything is integrated into the app, enabling the production of quality reports much faster than before—an undeniable advantage for our clients.

Mobile GIS apps provide a quick, accurate, and real-time snapshot of the situation, which can be useful in the event of an environmental disaster.

Having real-time data

Having accurate information available in real time provides many benefits.

The transportation sector in particular values the speed and accuracy of real-time data. Our bridges and civil engineering structures team inspects hundreds of bridges, culverts, and retaining walls every year across Quebec to give our clients a clear picture of the condition of their structures and to help plan any required work. To support those efforts, we designed a unique app that makes it possible to perform and document inspections quickly, efficiently, and accurately.

Our teams can access a detailed map of the site being inspected, allowing for better planning and coordination of the work. On site, they can enter a wide array of information using detailed forms that index and classify the data. The teams can document the inspection results immediately and attach photos. Everyone can monitor the results of inspections live on a secure web-based map and can view the work of other teams in the field. The app also includes a decision-making process that makes it possible to send alerts to the client if, for example, an urgent response is required for a specific structure. Being able to access information in real time helps our teams to speed their response time and secure the situation.

Mobile GIS apps can also be useful in the event of an environmental disaster. They make it possible to properly document the scale of the damage, which helps authorities respond more quickly and limit the impacts. These apps provide a quick, accurate, real-time snapshot of the situation. In the case of an oil spill in a rural area, the app identifies the location of the affected area and the extent of the damage, which would inform future remediation work. It would also help implement mitigation or protective measures to limit the contamination of a waterway. And, since the field work carried out by our specialists is documented in real time, it would be possible to forecast the spill’s trajectory, thus proactively mitigating risks as much as possible.

GIS apps provide a quick, accurate, real-time snapshot of a situation.

Better budget management

There’s no doubt that GIS apps simplify field work. For project managers, that means more efficient use of their budget. The technology reduces the administrative time that used to be spent transcribing data. Instead, the focus can be on added-value activities, such as information analysis and project design.

This contributed to the success of the Manitoba-Minnesota transmission line project for Manitoba Hydro. The high-voltage transmission line project was complex, due to its connection at the American border, the variable ground conditions, and the requirements of both federal and provincial environmental regulations. The app we created made it possible to facilitate and optimize the work of our field teams, who were tasked with assessing the environmental impacts of various activities. They needed to document each step safely and efficiently.

In addition to saving hours manually entering information, digital data collection also streamlined our quality assurance process, which enabled our teams to produce reports much faster. The application efficiently supported the project’s environmental monitoring activities, which successfully resulted in the project obtaining its certification under Manitoba’s Environment Act and the National Energy Board Act. In addition, the app developed for this project was reused and adapted for other Manitoba Hydro power projects. By leveraging this technology, we saved the client both time and money.

Transcending borders

Thanks to their georeferenced data, mobile geomatics apps offer infinite possibilities, no matter where the project is located. The EAU (Electronic Aquatic Utility) app is an excellent example. Developed by our Stantec team, this data-collection app is designed to support our aquatic science teams who are brought in to work on projects near bodies of water. These teams perform aquatic inventories and fish habitat analyses, which are required as part of environmental studies. The app is especially useful for complex linear infrastructure projects, like roads, power lines, or pipelines that can span several thousand kilometres and cross hundreds of bodies of water.

The app was initially developed for a specific project in eastern Canada. Within a few years, our teams in Montreal, Alberta, and British Columbia had contributed to a rapid increase in the app’s use, making it now the preferred tool for all our scientists, biologists, engineers, technicians, and environmental professionals working on similar projects across Canada. Before, every team had its own paper aquatic inventory maps tailored to its needs and the local regulatory context. To optimize the work for everyone and add value for our clients, we perfected a single mobile app that standardizes the aquatic inventory process, taking into account the specifics of each project, the various species of fish, and regional regulations. This collaborative effort gave rise to a universal but flexible app that facilitates data collection and information processing.

 

The EAU app standardized the aquatic inventory process, considering the specifics of each project, the various species of fish, and regional regulations.

Designing an effective app

In short, an effective app must be simple, flexible, and intuitive. Each time we design a new app, it’s critical to understand the type of data to be incorporated, the needs of the users and clients, and the ultimate purpose of the app. Although they are customized for one sector or project, apps must standardize the information collection process and subsequent data management.

In short, mobile geomatics apps put a wealth of information at one’s fingertips and can bring your projects to the next level, whatever and wherever they may be.

  • Cristian Graf

    Cristian Graf obtained his diploma in physical geography in 2002 from Université de Montréal. He pursued urban and land planning studies, which led him to the information services field 10 years ago.

    Contact Cristian
  • Mathieu Arcand

    With over two decades of experience in the environmental services industry, Mathieu has applied his expertise for earth sciences to the development of digital maps and mobile geographic information services applications.

    Contact Mathieu
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