Geographic information systems have arrived: there is not a city, county or state in the developed world which doesn’t use the technology extensively. Utilities use it to manage their lines. Planners use it to project population growth. Environmentalists use it to predict the impact of climate change. GIS is everywhere, and yet, the technology community is still only partially aware of it. Many black-belt geeks (perhaps even some Slashdot readers) have never seen a GIS in action, let alone actually used one.
That’s a real pity because GIS is doing to geographic data what Visicalc did to numeric data 30 years ago. It is bringing static maps to life, enabling discoveries and insights that would otherwise be impossible. And GIS is actually a lot of fun to use.
The iPhone seems like it would be an excellent platform for GIS. It’s mobile. It’s powerful enough to do at least some basic GIS functions. It has a built-in GPS and compass. It has a respectable amount of storage. So why is it that we still have not seen a full-blown GIS for the iPhone?
What’s available now
- Google Maps, included on every iPhone, is of course the most basic geographic application available. It’s quite powerful, although it does require you to be on a network (no joy if you’re panning for gold in the Sierra Nevada, or surveying the mountains of Kentucky). The iPhone version is a bit limited in that you can only add tiny amounts of information to it. However, with the iPhone 3.0 OS, Google Maps is now available to all applications as an extensible widget, and we can look forward to some clever uses of that widget.
- Google Earth, freely available, is a limited version of the familiar desktop application. It’s limited in that practically all the extensibility in the desktop version is missing. You cannot add KML files, or any other user-created overlays. And of course, you need to be on a network (and a fast one — 3G doesn’t really cut it).
- Geology CA and the other apps in the suite are perhaps the closest thing to a GIS we currently have on the iPhone. It’s limited in that it contains a fixed set of layers (users cannot upload their own), and the query capabilities are practically nil. But it is fully self-contained (no network access required), is easily accessible to anyone without any knowledge of GIS, and contains a good selection of data (28 layers). We’ll see if the makers can expand it into a full-fledged GIS.
- MapPro WMS should be included, although it’s only a display mechanism for data served from a WMS server, and therefore not a true free-standing GIS per se. Sadly, the execution is flawed and the reviews are not good, but the basic idea seems sound.
- The 800-pound gorilla in the GIS world is ESRI, and they have announced their intention to step into the iPhone market before the end of the year. It’ll be interesting to see what they come up with, and at what price (their enterprise applications are excellent but notoriously expensive).
Easy access to data – There is practically an infinity of GIS data available on the web. Everything from the precise contour of sidewalks in Manhattan to the results of the presidential election, precinct by precinct. The first thing we need is an easy way for the average iPhone user to access that information. By easy, I mean Apple-easy: just a few taps, with no special kung-fu required. The desktop version of Google Earth has already made a lot of this data accessible, but there is still no real solution for the iPhone.
Geographic queries – We also need to see some geographic processing capabilities. GIS becomes truly powerful when it’s not just a static display, but a living, breathing set of information. That’s when data becomes knowledge. I want to see the results of the 2008 presidential election, but I also want to visually correlate them with the crime rate per zip code and the population density per block. This kind of eye-opening query is what makes GIS so valuable. There is no reason why it should not be available on a mobile platform like the iPhone.
True mobility – The value of GIS on the iPhone comes from the fact that it’s a mobile platform. Therefore any GIS solution needs to be able to take full advantage of this mobility. Not only should it be able to use the device’s capabilities (GPS, compass, camera, etc…), but it also needs to work when there is no network available. Users should be able to cache as much data as needed. The average iPhone has gigabytes of unused storage, why not put it to good use?
Data exchange – Of course, being mobile means that you can create geographic data yourself. Map your own backyard. Geotag your photos and link them to your stored waypoints. And you should be able to share all this information with the world. Some apps have begun to appear in this area, such as Oracle’s Enterprise Asset Management, or E-String Technologies’ Logstr, but the exchange of data is still limited.
Integration with existing GIS systems – Any GIS solution will of course need to talk to the existing GIS infrastructure, using proprietary but widespread standards (e.g. ESRI) and open standards such as those defined by the Open Geospatial Consortium.
The long-rumored and still-to-be-confirmed Apple tablet would of course have the potential to be a great GIS platform. More space, more pixels, presumably more processing power. The tactile interface really makes the manipulation and exploration of maps more sensual, more immediate. And the mobility takes it to a whole new level. The iPhone’s screen size restricts its potential as a GIS platform. A tablet would solve that problem. Of course, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether Apple will eventually deliver one, and when.
Augmented reality is very fashionable these days, and it would make an intriguing addition to any GIS. Just imagine looking around you through your iPhone and seeing the sewer pipes under your feet, or cadastral data showing the owner and tax value of every land parcel and building around you. This is not a pipe dream — all the pieces are available, they just need to be put together.
A call to arms
This is my call to iPhone developers: opportunities abound! The iPhone is a brand new platform, and we have only begun to explore its possibilities. Give us a GIS worthy of it (please)!