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Interactive Collector for ArcGIS Breakfast Seminar Hits the Mark

Collector for ArcGIS was the focus of a recent breakfast seminar held in the Toronto-area, giving a small audience of GIS professionals the unique opportunity to directly engage two product engineers from Esri’s mobile team. The presenters welcomed and encouraged direct feedback and questions. What was discussed? Read more to find out.

Scrapping paper in favour of a tablet or smartphone to collect data in the field seems like a no-brainer in theory. But in practice, that can be another story. Anyone who’s been tasked with deploying a field collector app knows that it’s not exactly a straightforward task. There are many things to consider, such as the hardware you’re using, the specific needs of each field project (because every, single field project is unique, right?) and maybe, just maybe, an IT security policy that isn’t exactly making your life easier.

Recognizing this, Dillon Consulting hosted a breakfast seminar on February 13th that was something aimed to be more than your typical “come and see the latest and greatest stuff we have to offer” sales pitch. The seminar gave users an opportunity to delve a little deeper into Esri’s Collector for ArcGIS, and to find out how they can get field data collection working better for them.

Figure 1: The breakfast seminar audience gets the skinny on Collector for ArcGIS from Paul Barker, a product engineer with Esri's mobile team.

Co-sponsored by Esri and GPS hardware supplier Cansel, the intimate and informal seminar was what you might get if you held a conference breakout session in a local coffee shop (and the coffee was actually pretty decent). Esri mobile developers, Paul Barker and Russ Roberts—both Canadian east coasters now based in Redlands, California—led the seminar, first outlining the Esri mobile strategy and then highlighting Collector for ArcGIS capabilities, supported by live demonstrations. It was, however, their open call for feedback during the seminar, and the resulting advice and opinions they offered that really made this seminar tick.

The spring release of Esri’s Collector for ArcGIS with disconnected editing capabilities was, in particular, well-received. The new feature means users can take maps offline on mobile devices, clearing a big obstacle for user adoption because field workers can locally cache pre-defined basemaps on their devices. This means data can be collected on maps in the field, temporarily stored onto the device and then synchronized with the office once the field worker has an internet connection (all seamlessly; without the user having to intervene).  This on-demand feature will be supported by all Esri basemaps, with a 100,000 tile limit available offline.

An issue raised about smartphone battery drain illustrated the interactive element of the seminar. An audience member voiced this concern and presenters suggested augmenting a smartphone’s power supply with a battery pack to help prevent battery drain. And, when an audience member noted that this solution had been attempted (with less than optimal success), a discussion was triggered about best-practices for device selection. The conclusion?  Depending on the application, a more heavy-duty commercial device, such as the Xplore Ranger X Android tablet that Cansel circulated at the seminar, might be preferable, because, although tempting to use and cost-effective, it was noted that smartphones have many limitations. Identifying their strengths and weaknesses and then adopting a strategic deployment approach was recommended. For example, using an iPhone is perhaps more ideal for lighter weight applications, such as a municipal worker doing utility asset management tagging or, as we demonstrated at our Toronto UC, small ad-hoc survey applications. A less ideal application would be a field worker using an iPhone in a remote Northern Ontario forest taking hundreds of geo-tagged photos (a task better suited for a commercial, ruggedized tablet).

Figure 2: Esri mobile developers built a mobile data collection app for the audience.

What’s coming in the future for Collector? Paul and Russ noted that Esri developers are working to make data collection fields in Collector for ArcGIS easier to configure. They’re also getting more aggressive with caching locally—a move no doubt meant to compliment the disconnected editing features that will be made available in Collector for ArcGIS 10.2.2. Finally, based on feedback from users, ArcGIS Online is being developed to address a challenge with mobile Collector apps that GIS and IT departments commonly face together: getting data into fields that are accessible outside a firewall while maintaining IT security standards. The small crowd didn’t exactly break out into applause, but a few smiles were evident.

I’ll offer my own applause to the event organizers. Many GIS users appreciate the ability to go beyond the demo and have the chance to ask about all those little real-world issues and obstacles that can often be the difference between adoption and non-adoption. And that was on the menu here. Judging from the feedback I overheard, my own feelings were confirmed that there should more events like these. The seminar’s condensed format, practical subject matter and limited time commitment worked well. It seemed as though organizers and attendees all got something out of it. And all for the benefit of GIS. You might call it a win-win-win.