Elegant Solutions for Data Sharing and Mobile Mapping at West Virginia DEP

Panoramic view of Charleston, West Virginia

Nick Schaer

Program Development Geologist, WVDEP

Nick Schaer wears many hats at the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP). As a senior mining geologist, senior Karst geologist and mobile GIS team lead for the WVDEP he works on projects ranging from underground surveys to UVA mapping projects and environmental surveys. While each project has different needs and objectives, they all face similar challenges in terms of managing the resources needed to get the job done and finding the right mix of technology to collect the most accurate survey and research data possible. The first challenge is to ensure that everyone begins the project at the same starting point with the most up-to-date maps available.

Getting a large amount of map data deployed to non-GIS trained field staff across multiple state programs is a huge challenge for Schaer. ‘We generate a lot of data. Things change quickly, and if some of us are working with out-dated information as a starting point, then it generates a lot of inefficiency and errors.’ says Schaer. ‘I used to have to do mobile GIS on PDA devices. These systems were often quite complicated and prone to crash.’

A few years ago, Schaer discovered Avenza Maps Pro, a mobile app for iOS and Android with powerful GPS-enabled mapping capabilities, and the option to use on virtually any smartphone or tablet. The app allows the gatekeepers of map data to deploy maps or share data files, including Shapefiles, to a large number of app users easily through the sharing of QR codes, by email or through cloud storage applications. ‘We are now able to deploy the necessary updated information by using ArcGIS Data Driven Pages to a master GeoPDF server location. These site-specific maps can be easily downloaded to field inspector cell phones and iPads.’ states Schaer.

With the ability to share data more easily, there still remained a challenge for Schaer in that the GPS capabilities of the average smartphone or tablet are not accurate enough for many of his projects. ‘The highest levels of accuracy we use is in tying down datum points for large underground surveys.’ says Schaer. ‘However, there are also Underground Survey Datum for which the survey tie points need at least 2-3 cm accuracy. More recently I have begun using 360° cameras to do long term revegetation change analysis over long time cycles. The accuracy needed to identify individual trees or stands has to be within a few feet.’ he adds.

Luckily, a simple solution was at hand, by combining the mapping capabilities of Avenza Maps Pro with the accuracy of Trimble Geospatial’s high-accuracy GPS devices. ‘I am usually linked to a Trimble R-1 with Bluetooth, and to a RICOH Theta 360 Camera, all while running Avenza Maps Pro while I’m in the field. We will often use a master tie point determined by a Trimble R-8 linked to the state CORS network which helps tie down the vertical accuracy as well. I use Avenza Maps Pro to navigate and the R-1 for roving data collection.’

Avenza Maps Pro connects via Bluetooth with a variety of Trimble devices including the R1 and R2 to transmit more accurate GPS locations into the app. This allows for better location, navigation and collection of data within the app.

In addition to his duties with the WVDEP, Schaer also lends his time and expertise to the OSMRE TIPS Program on the federal level. The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) operates the TIPS program that makes off-the-shelf engineering and scientific software and equipment easily accessible to state and tribal agencies and provides training in the use of those tools. As the Senior Mobile Device/Mobile GIS Course Developer for the Schaer sees Avenza Maps Pro + Trimble as a stable yet powerful tool for people with minimal GIS experience to collect meaningful map data.

‘Avenza Maps Pro is a simple way for us to get maps and data into the hands of field staff who need them, and who work in remote areas.’ says Schaer. ‘Even if they are not GIS professionals, Avenza Maps Pro is simple enough not to be a burden but powerful enough to allow them to do the work. Paired with Trimble devices we are able to achieve the accuracy we need for all kinds of data types.’