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TerraGo Edge: Every Soldier a Data User and Data Collector

May 7, 2015  - By 2 Comments

For years, when I was the GIS manager for the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), I’d get an annual visit from the Layton Graphics sales rep trying to sell me something. Layton Graphics was an Atlanta blueprint company. I never needed blueprint services so I politely listened and sent the sales rep on his way. In 2005 that changed when the sale rep demonstrated his company’s eye-opener GeoPDF, a significant leap in GIS-enabled map publishing. With the invention of the GeoPDF, the company was reformed as TerraGo, and the rest, shall we say, is history.

Screenshot of Edge on an iPhone showing data capture points in red and current location in blue.

Screenshot of Edge on an iPhone showing data capture points in red and current location in blue.

Until GeoPDFs, we published our GIS data as Shapefiles on CDs and relied on users to display the data correctly using their own GIS software. Since many new GIS users had no cartographic training the resultant maps frequently looked terrible or, even worse, completely misrepresented the data. As the publishers of the raw data, we frequently got blamed for some very crappy-looking maps- including those created by our own ARC transportation and land-use planners. GeoPDFs changed that since the cartography remained intact. Not until Esri’s Map Publisher, now ArcGIS Publisher, and subsequent cartographic tools was cartography preserved as the originator intended.

A GeoPDF was a single Adobe document that bundled GIS data, imagery and resultant maps into one compact file with no lost data files, no improperly displayed data and no incorrect data pointers. The Acrobat file was, in effect, an interactive GIS map display that permitted a user to pan, zoom, turn layers on and off, view, import social media and navigate 3D models and many other functions in one single compact file. GeoPDFs proved so valuable that they became the Army’s and other federal agencies’ geospatial publication method of choice.

The Next Geospatial Leap

Recently, TerraGo made another geospatial technology leap, doing for geospatial data collection what the company did for geospatial data display. TerraGo streamlined and sped up geospatial data collection with its new product, TerraGo Edge. TerraGo Edge is a cloud-based application that works on PCs, tablets and even smartphones. A user downloads the app and can then build a data-collection environment that is completely tailored to the needs of an organization. Field personnel can then rapidly collect enterprise data using a PC, tablet or smartphone with very little training and no additional software. The application permits the collection of tabular data, photographs, video clips and more that are georeferenced using the mobile device’s built-in GPS to locate each data point. All data is saved in the cloud and instantly shareable with designated users.

Now the even better news: If the network connection is lost or weak, the field collection can continue in the disconnected environment. The collected data is stored locally, then automatically synced when the connection is restored. The simplicity of the system and disconnected use may help make the Army’s Future Combat Systems vision, in which each soldier is a data user and data collector, a cost-effective reality.

Field Test

Bryan Burns of TerraGo collects data with his iPhone and Bluetooth-connected Bad Elf GPS.

Bryan Burns of TerraGo collects data with his iPhone and Bluetooth-connected Bad Elf GPS.

I had to see the system in actual operation, so I paid a visit to the TerraGo Atlanta offices last week. Scott Lee and Bryan Burns of TerraGo gave me a full demo. I previously loaded the TerraGo trial app on my iPhone, which you can also do by going to your app store and downloading the free trial application. The software is fairly intuitive, and I was able to shoot a georeferenced picture and record some notes on my own. Bryan and Scott demonstrated the more advanced Edge features, especially the creation of custom collection forms that greatly speed data collection by field users.

Form creation is an important aspect of Edge, because it not only speeds data collection, it also reduces the chance of errors. As most of you know, sloppy data capture can really corrupt a database. Poor spelling, missed keystrokes, etc., can make database searches difficult and even result in missed records. Developers have found that entry errors can be minimized and collection speed enhanced with several simple data collection tools and techniques that are part of TerraGo Edge. Some of these include the use of pull-down menus for frequently used terms, numeric/alphanumeric entry key restrictions, checkboxes, the use of “radio buttons” for multiple choices, and others. As a result, field users can collect data as quickly as they can walk from one location to another with minimal data entry errors or corruption.

How Much Does It Cost?

$360 per year, with up to three devices. If you want TerraGo to host your operation, storing and backing up your data, that’s another $360 per year. The only additional cost, assuming you already have a smartphone, is additional GPS hardware to achieve better accuracy than the native 5 meters of a smartphone. The additional hardware cost depends on your accuracy needs. A Bad Elf plug-in device gives you 2-meter accuracy for $300 and 1-meter accuracy for $600. Better is a sub-meter accuracy iSX Blue II for $2,000, and even an RTK centimeter system, the EOS Arrow 200, for $6,000. This graph shows the hardware comparisons.

Keep in mind that the GPS units permit data collection even if disconnected, and all available GPS metadata is captured with each fix, so additional post-processing could be done at a later date if needed. The system also comes with a ton of GeoPDF maps, vector data such as OpenStreetMap, WMS feeds and imagery to serve as a backdrop for your data collection. As you would expect, the data you collect can be saved and exported in popular formats such as Esri Shapefiles, KML and GeoPackage, the new OGC handheld standard being supported by AGC and NGA.

How Good Is It?

This image shows the water fountain in front of the TerraGo offices.  The green dots show the data points I captured with the Bad Elf Bluetooth GPS.

This image shows the water fountain in front of the TerraGo offices. The green dots show the data points I captured with the Bad Elf Bluetooth GPS.

We then went outside for a short data-collection test using the Bad Elf Bluetooth GPS. It was easy to pair the Bad Elf to my iPhone, and I was able to collect data as fast as I could walk from one location to another.  Since this was a short test in the open, I couldn’t judge how quick data collection would be in less than ideal conditions such as building canyons or tree canopy cover. I’d certainly want to spend a day collecting under different conditions to get an accurate feel for the speed, accuracy and reliability of each hardware option in a production environment.

Go to the TerraGo website for a much deeper dive. Edge looks like it will give the competition a real run for the money, not to mention the very significant smartphone accuracy improvements being tested in the labs. So, in short, you can have in your hand a networked GPS datalogger with up to cm accuracy that can operate in a disconnected environment. It seems like smartphones are slowly replacing our stand-alone devices — watches, media players, digital/video cameras, car navigation, compass, level, PC and flashlight. I can even use my iPhone as a magnetometer. Now, even high-end GPS dataloggers are in the smartphone crosshairs.

A good way to see TerraGo Edge in action will be the GPS World webinar at 1300 EDT May 28. Registration is free.

P.S. With Mother’s Day and Memorial Day coming up soon, I’d like to call your attention to my column last year. We frequently read about the bravery and hardships of our military, but the families at home not so much. The mother in the column was so selfless I can’t forget her. You won’t either.

Art Kalinski

About the Author:

A career Naval Officer, Art Kalinski established the Navy’s first geographic information system (GIS) in the mid-1980s. Completing a post-graduate degree in GIS at the University of North Carolina, he was the Atlanta Regional Commission GIS Manager from 1993 to 2007. He pioneered the use of oblique imagery for public safety and participated in numerous disaster-response actions including GIS/imagery support of the National Guard during Hurricane Katrina; the Urban Area Security Initiative; a NIMS-based field exercise in Atlanta; and a fully manned hardware-equipped joint disaster response exercise in New York City. Kalinski retired early from ARC to join Pictometry International to direct military projects using oblique imagery, which led to him joining SPGlobal Inc. He has written articles for numerous geospatial publications, and authors a monthly column for the GeoIntelligence Insider e-newsletter aimed at federal GIS users.

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