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Using Low Cost, Off-the-shelf Mobile Apps to Build Flexible Mobile Solutions

By Kevin Madsen, Technical Services Group Manager, Stanley Consultants

Kevin Madsen, Technical Services Group Manager, Stanley Consultants

You have probably read numerous articles and blogs about the accelerating rate of change in business as well as technology. Change in the corporate world is happening at an increasingly rapid pace due to new customer demands and new project requirements. One example in the engineering and construction industry is the increasing use of mobile technology in the field. Mobile technology and software advances in GPS data, GIS, digital photography, and wireless networks (as well as others) have converged to enable powerful mobile platforms providing significant capabilities in the field.

So how can you develop software for use in the field on mobile platforms?

Software development methodologies, such as the Waterfall model, have been used for decades. This model follows a sequential process, starting with the idea, flowing through many phases including analysis, design, testing, implementation, and ongoing maintenance. To be successful, the requirements must be known up front and must not change significantly during the development. Projects of this nature can take months or even years from start to finish. While the resulting systems can be very good, it is very likely the development can take significantly longer than your client project allows.

To address the increasing demands for rapid development and change, many IT organizations have adopted new development methodologies such as Agile and Scrum. Some of you might have experience with these development methodologies. Even if you have not formally adopted these methodologies, you have probably  modified your development, integration, testing, and rollout processes to be streamlined and be more efficient because your business demands it.

"Software advances in GPS data, GIS, digital photography, and wireless networks have converged to enable powerful mobile platforms providing significant capabilities in the Engineering field.

How do these ideas apply to using mobile technologies in the field for consulting engineers?

Simply put, your business will demand that you provide mobile solutions rapidly and in a cost effective manner. To do this, you should not overlook consumer-based
technology and “off-the-shelf” apps. According to figures recently published by Forbes and Apple, the Apple App store reached over 1 million apps earlier this year.
Many of these applications are usable “out-of-the-box” directly by your project teams in the field and are available for only a few dollars each.

Start by getting IT involved with your project teams early in the project lifecycle. Identify processes in the field that are labor intensive, repetitive, and heavily utilize traditional processes such as data collection on paper forms, dictation, and photos taken with cameras which are not linked to supporting data. Many of the best candidate processes will also have significant post-processing of the data that is collected, often remotely, to collate, analyze, input, and prepare reports. Focus on these processes and assist your teams by rapidly developing new processes using technology they can use to become more efficient.

One trap that many analysts fall into is trying to develop a complete end-to-end solution that is fully integrated and reusable on many projects—remember the Waterfall methodology?

Doing so may provide a great solution, but likely will not be developed rapidly enough for your team or be cost effective. Don’t fall into this trap! There may be a different way to approach the challenge while providing better results. Many times, the goal should not be to create a perfect solution, but one that is “good enough” to get the job done.

After you fully understand the process, break it down into small functions such as collect the data, collect photographs, connect the data to the photographs, transmit the data, import into the database, etc. A process flowchart is very helpful during this stage. Identify individual functions that match up well with “off-the-shelf” apps. For example, use one of the many available “form creator” apps to design simple data collection forms. Many of these also have the capability to integrate taking pictures and geo-locating the picture with GPS coordinates. You can then utilize 4G wireless capabilities to upload the collected data directly to a remote database for processing using a simple app.

Obviously, the above example is very simple. There are many types of apps that can be used ranging from photo editing, forms collection, PDF file manipulation, cloud file storage, and others. One very simple but overlooked solution is to provide full sets of reference data or drawing sets to engineers in the field. The files can be cached locally, stored in the cloud, or even stored on live collaborative systems in the design center, providing better security and more convenient access to the data for your engineers in the field. Beyond simple applications, more complex apps are available, some of which directly integrate with backend systems such as existing database and GIS systems. By using these simple techniques, your project teams can be quickly outfitted with tablets in the field for data collect activities while investing very little.

There are benefits of using this approach for both the project team, and your client. On recent field engagements to observe and document existing utility site conditions, project teams have experienced significant labor savings. In addition, the data collection was faster and required significantly less post processing of the data. These projects experienced savings of 15 percent or more on labor costs.

The project teams also required shorter schedules for data gathering and preparing final reports. The shortened schedules have allowed the team to provide final reports to our client ahead of scheduled deadlines. With data being collected and input in the field into live databases, errors are identified early in the process, allowing for real-time corrections, resulting in better quality data.

From your client’s perspective the benefits are very similar. They include lower costs, better quality, and shortened schedules –all things clients love to see. In addition, you are in a position to better respond to requests to adjust the processes “in flight” without significant costs or schedule delays. The end result is satisfied clients that are willing to hire you for additional projects, sometimes before you are even finished with the current project.