When Your GIS Dept Is Too Busy To Help – Google’s My Maps?

The GIS department in many utilities and local governments are over taxed:

  • Street Light data positioned in My Google Maps

    Street Light data positioned in Google My Maps

    In smaller organizations, responsibilities typically rest with one or two busy people

  • In larger organizations, GIS and IT staff are often focused on implementing and supporting enterprise applications.

This reality leaves many department managers, who see the benefit of GIS, on the outside looking in.

Easy to use, cost effective, hosted mobile application sites, support GPS data capture and provide the basic framework for data capture.

Google’s My Maps, a free Google service, now provides the basic GIS functionality that allows users to view observations on a map, edit locations, edit data and even theme data by fields.

Hosted Mobile Application Services Gaining Momentum

The rapid expansion of low cost, cloud based, mobile application deployment sites now allows every department within a local government to deploy mobile applications to field staff for as little as $15/user/month.

Most offer powerful features that are often missing in traditional enterprise applications that take months of planning and thousands of dollars to deploy. Key features include:

  • Web based application development
  • Support for all standard devices (Apple, Android, Windows etc)
  • Support for various data types:
    • GPS support (typically accurate to 6-9 meters)
    • Text, real, integer
    • Value lists
    • Bar code
    • Photo capture
    • Calculations
    • Signatures
    • Sketches
  • Dispatch and workflow support
  • Automatic generation of a PDF containing all captured data
    • Including an embedded map
    • Including all photographs
  • Extracting reports as an Excel file
  • API’s to allow full enterprise integration

In the mid to long term, I believe that these hosted solutions, much like the Salesforce.com CRM, will become accepted standard sonce the fear of cloud based solutions is overcome. The result will be dramatically lower implementation and deployment costs for mobile applications.

Why Map Your Mobile Data?

Within any local government there are a number of departments that do not need the precision of traditional GIS but would benefit greatly from being able to visualize their data.  A few examples include:

  • Code enforcement to be able to see the violations themed on a map of the town
  • Street light inventory and inspection
  • Graffiti locations
  • Tree inventories
  • Parks and recreation asset tracking and maintenance
  • Hydrant inventory and inspection
  • Manhole inspections
  • Water quality testing sites
  • Sanitary sewer overflows

The list goes on and on….

By being able to capture information on a mobile device and then visualize it on a map, users gain valuable insights on key issues.  But what do you do when you can’t get the attention of your GIS team?

Interestingly, My Google Maps (released in Sept 2014)  is a free service that offers much of the required functionality.

Using Google’s My Maps for Street Light Inventory – An Example

Sample mobile interface

Sample Mobile mobile interface

GIS professional’s are faced with resolving the cost versus the benefit of survey level accuracy. Some insist that all assets be located at the highest possible precision.  Others take the postion that precision is application dependent.

For example, if you direct field workers to within 20′ of a street light, they will find it. In these types of applications, the GPS precision of smart phones and tablets (6 meters or 20 feet) is often sufficient.  It is even more practical if users can then adjust the location as part of a quality assurance program.

To test this hypothises, we ran a test of a street light inventory application.  The goal was to use a hosted web service to develop a street light inventory application and to then load the data into Google My Maps. An example of the application smart phone screen is shown here.  Note that the accuracy achieved by the GPS was 12 m (40 ft).

Output from the hosted service was a PDF file containing the defined fields, an embedded Google map and user captured pictures.  An example of this can be seen here.

Loading Observations Into Google’s My Maps

My Google Maps

Google My Maps

Loading an Excel file of observations into Google My Maps is straight forward:

Step 1 – Log into My Maps.  Note, you must have a free Google account to sign in.

Step 2 – Select Create a New Map

Step 3 – Select the Import Option

Import a csv file to create a map

Import a csv file to create a layer

Step 4 – Browse to and select a CSV file that has the data to be loaded. Note: The file must contain latitude and longitude fields.

Step 5 – Identify the lat/long fields from the list

Step 6 – Select the column to use as the map label

Google My  Maps will then generate the map for you:

Street light inventory displayed in Google Maps

Street light inventory displayed in Google’s My Maps

You can then select an individual marker to view and edit both the captured data and the location of the light.

Google’s My Maps Key Features:

It is not surprising that Google’s My Maps application is feature rich and designed for the general public.  Key features are:

  • Easy to learn and operate
  • Load and view data from any geo-coded CSV file
  • Multiple layer support
  • Edit attribute data
  • Edit locations
  • Label points
  • Theme points by attributes
  • Street and satellite base maps
  • Maps can be shared
  • Maps can be accessed from a mobile device

Google’s My Maps Primary Limitations

There are surprisingly few limitations to the application:

  • Automatically loads only point features
  • Maximum points per layer is 2,000 but you can have multiple layers in a map
  • Difficult but not impossible to export attribute data
  • No “what’s here” feature for addresses

Work arounds are available for all of the above limitations but require more careful planning of the workflows used.


The emergence of easy to use, low cost, hosted mobile application development sites, integrated with the recently released Google’s My Maps, permits individual departments to configure, test and evaluate location based solutions without the direct support of the GIS department.  Once developed, and deployed, the collected data can be easily integrated with an existing GIS for detailed analysis purposes.

Start-up costs are as low as $15/user/month plus an investment of 2 to 3 days to learn and build out an application for mobile devices – even less if you can find a free, pre-built application.  A 5 crew field work force can be fully operational for $75 to $125 per month for the mobile application service.  Service plans, if you need real time access to the data, will add to the monthly cost.

Related Posts
No related posts for this content

About the Author

A professional engineer and solution architect with direct experience in a wide range of industries including GIS, water, sewer, power, transportation and oil and gas. Currently focused on delivering software for the civil engineers, surveyors, utilities, local governments and their supporting organizations.

Leave a Reply 0 comments