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Why is GIS Mobile Accessibility This Year's Hot Topic?

by Kevin G. on July 7, 2014

I had the opportunity to attend and present at GIS conferences here in the Midwest the last few weeks. While attending both the MidAmerica GIS Consortium (MAGIC) conference held in Kansas City, Missouri and the Indiana Geographic Information Council (IGIC) conference held in Indianapolis, Indiana, one could not help but notice the recurring theme, mobile accessibility to GIS.
 
At both MAGIC and IGIC, there were some truly brilliant individuals with incredible intellect and insight into the GIS world. Heck, one of the presenters was able to work in an iconic quote from JFK and even displayed a video clip showing it as he related that to his Java powered website. While other, not so brilliant presenters like myself, equated the 7 Deadly Sins of GIS with 7 characters from Sponge Bob! Yes, you guessed it; my household is a heavy consumer of Sponge Bob. However, regardless of the general topic, there was no avoiding the underlying current of both conferences. GIS software providers, GIS companies like Schneider Geospatial, and GIS professionals in both the public and private sector all have an eye on the mobility and accessibility of GIS.
 
This blog is not going to discuss the specifics of how to take your GIS online, how to have access to your GIS in the field, or how to store your GIS data in the cloud. If you want the nuts and bolts of how to do that; contact one of our developers, grab a very large cup of coffee, and prepare to be inundated with knowledge. Instead, I want to shed some light on why these are hot topics. Why they were mentioned in some capacity in almost every presentation.
 
Simply put, we live in an information society. What does that mean? From my experiences and the experience of having 2 teenagers (with 4 more in time....), I’ve learned a thing or two. Basically, if it can’t be accessed mobile, then it doesn’t exist. Seriously, that is the mindset out there. If my kids can’t access it on their phones/tablets, then, to them, it doesn’t exist. I’ve even watched my 15 year old daughter (surviving a 15 year old daughter to be covered in a future blog, assuming I do indeed survive...), sitting in front of a computer with internet access, look up something on her mobile phone. When asked why she chooses her phone over the computer, she simply stated that she prefers to do it that way.  Then, of course, she looked at me like I was an idiot. Let’s face it; the younger generation has been raised to expect mobile access on their terms. I have spoken with EMS experts; and they’ve stated that younger emergency responders, in a crisis, are more comfortable viewing important information through their mobile device (phone/tablet) than through a laptop computer.  This desire to have mobile access exists in all areas of an organization.
 
This latest trend towards mobility, which is more the norm than a trend, has infiltrated our GIS world. Therefore, we need to react appropriately; and that is exactly what was on full display at these conferences. The GIS world has kicked into overdrive to make sure that accessibility is there. Municipalities hosting GIS on the web is no longer a want, but now has become a need. Not only is it a need, but having available access across all common formats; Droid, Apple IOS, tablets, PCs, etc. has become both more challenging and a necessity. The days of pushing out data that requires the end user to download a plug-in are gone. This next generation doesn’t have time for that. They need access to the data from their device without jumping through hoops.
 
Heck, I’m old enough that I still think “Apps” are cool. In speaking to our developers and asking why we don’t have an “App” for our online web portal Beacon™.  They laughed at me and said, “You don’t need one; and besides, who wants to download an App to access their data?” Once again, the litmus test always comes back to my teenagers. If they have to download an App to view a website or quickly access information, then the accessibility to the information is no longer quick! Wow, when did I become so old....?
 
So, in summary, it is all about accessibility.  The presentations that covered every GIS topic imaginable all had a mobility/accessibility undercurrent. Virtually every presenter covered how they planned on getting the information accessible, or how they were currently implementing a plan for accessibility, or how they successfully made their GIS more accessible. So, while I’d rather stick a fork in my eye than delve into the finer nuances of how our developers have successfully provided GIS accessibility to our clients for years, I’ll have to say, they knew what they were doing, because that is definitely the hot topic this year.