A quick look around the 21st century marketplace reveals a simple truth: the value of data has changed. And, in turn, the way in which data is gathered, communicated and acted upon is evolving as well. Large enterprises, for example, must gather large amounts of data from all facets of operations and information technologies, analyze that data, and turn it into actionable intelligence at both the macro and micro levels. These practices are what is known as the Data Value Chain – a lens through which decision makers at all levels of the organization can view the flow of data from the instant it is collected throughout its entire lifecycle.
It’s no secret that mobile devices are an essential part of this chain, since it is one of the most popular mediums that people use to communicate and gather their information. In the ensuing years after Apple shipped its first iPhone, for example, consumers now expect—and demand—instant access to information, entertainment and personal communications. Today, these expectations also extend to the world of business, as the needs surrounding accurate geospatial information influence the value chain for organizations that rely on mobile technology to get work done.
Well before the first iPhone came into existence, geospatial professionals were using specialized computers and software for their work in the field. Their need for accurate mobile data—quickly collected and made available whenever and wherever it is needed—is among the most valued trend in the geospatial world. This trend is accelerating, and the flood of consumer devices is changing the way mobile data is gathered, managed and shared. How can businesses leverage this trend to their advantage?
The Customized Cloud
Organizations can encounter obstacles when efficiently collecting and using geospatial data – thus impacting the value of the data chain being created. The wide variety in workflows and information combines with the physical separation of work in field and office to produce challenges in enterprise management. To meet these challenges, numerous flexible solutions have emerged, and it starts with customized software.
Organizations often need multiple functions (data collection, guidance to field workers, inspection and supervision, etc.) and current, accurate information on their field devices. Otherwise, activities downstream relying upon that information can be misguided. These needs can be addressed with a two-pronged approach. First, rather than relying on vendors for specialized software, users can customize their software to meet their own needs. Second, by using Cloud-based services and technologies, organizations can exchange information quickly and securely.
A good illustration of software serving multiple functions is Trimble TerraFlex field software. TerraFlex provides customizable data collection software and Cloud services to manage and combine data from different activities. For example, a water utility can customize TerraFlex workflows to collect data on the diverse assets of sanitary sewers and stormwater and then blend the information to create comprehensive datasets of underground assets. Field data is transferred to the Cloud for access by office staff and other field crews. Using the Cloud, data can be transferred to multiple formats or integrated into other systems. Similarly, for electric utilities, collecting information on vegetation under power lines is much different than counting inventory of equipment on power poles. When the seemingly unrelated data is combined, it provides valuable information for maintenance and enterprise operations.
While it’s clear that software flexibility plays a major role in mobile data collection, organizations are also looking at the hardware components of their field operations. The iPhone unleashed a flood of consumer-style devices and workflows, and people recognized that the smartphone could provide a new platform for commercial applications. Many companies issue smartphones to employees for basic communications, and many take it a step farther by using smartphones and tablets as field devices – thus broadening the data value chain function for the organization.
By running professional-grade apps for data collection and management, the devices become efficient, task-focused tools. Many workers own smartphones and some companies have adopted a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) strategy, which uses company-provided software running on their employees’ personal devices.
Whether a smartphone is company-owned or BYOD, the key is the common operating systems such as iOS, Android and Windows. By supporting these popular operating systems, developers of geospatial apps enable companies to create workflows that provide consistent operation and output even though the field workers may carry different types of devices.
A crucial tradeoff can be durability, and is addressed by using rugged, professional-grade devices that combine commercial software with the familiar look and feel of a personal device. These solutions provide smartphone functionality and popular operating systems as well as positioning accuracy, visibility in sunlight and the ability to operate in challenging environments—characteristics not found in many consumer-grade products.
There’s another reason why many organizations are turning to smartphones and tablets as field devices: the increasing use of geographic locations in field workflows. But smartphones are not always the best tools for positioning.
As more organizations add geospatial information to their enterprise solutions, demand for reliable and accurate geo-location will increase. This demand can rapidly outstrip the positioning capabilities of most consumer devices, which typically provide precision of a few meters.
The challenge is to enable workers to use devices they are familiar with while providing positioning in more places, and with higher precision than a smartphone. New GNSS receivers, used in conjunction with a smartphone or field computer, can solve this problem. Transported in a pocket or belt pouch, next-generation GNSS receivers can be placed directly on an object to capture positions with sub-meter accuracy. The GNSS receiver then streams positioning data via Bluetooth to the user’s smart device. The receiver can be configured and controlled from the smart device—yes, there’s an app for that—and can be readily transferred from one user to another. In doing so, these technologies protect an organization’s investment in positioning, while allowing it to keep pace with rapid changes in mobile technology.
The new trends—customization and Cloud-based operation; consumer-style hardware and software; and support for precise locations—can continue to expand the role of geospatial information in the enterprise. It’s clear that a Data Value Chain emerges from a blended technology ecosystem that acts as a disruptive force throughout an organization to root out traditional, static practices and supplant them with innovative, purpose-built solutions based on streamlining all types of data – and from all sources, especially mobile. The variety of solutions here can enable organizations to find or develop systems that tightly fit their needs. In addition to the long-term benefits in workforce productivity, customized solutions provide front-end savings in time and cost needed to implement the improved workflows and data management. As you take a close look at your business, you may discover that new tools for productivity are already at your fingertips.
Filed Under: M2M (machine to machine)