So, you think you need an app for that?

By Chad Belisle on 2019-05-20 18:00

Ok picture this, you're a small or large business, you might even just be an individual, it doesn't really matter, but you're interested in geographic information systems (GIS) and you're also interested in solving problems as cheap as can be. Whether you need to collect data, share information or do some real time geoprocessing, there is probably an app for your purpose. In the GIS world ESRI reigns supreme and has many small apps to handle most situations. But what if you didn't want to pay the big bucks for ESRI's beautiful apps? Well you might need to access another supplier's apps or create your own custom micro app!

I think a lot of people think apps are incredibly difficult to create and you need a computer science degree or to be some sort of technical wizard; they aren't wrong, you certainly can't make an app using Microsoft Word and a pocketful of hope. It does take some educational dedication, interest, skill and of course some of that pure computer magic to build a functional app. What people don't realize is you can build apps with little or no programming needed for all sorts of purposes. Some of those computer science wizards created easy to use platforms where wizards in training can go and create apps all on their own; an app to create an app, what an app-ceptional idea! Some of these platforms cost money, some are free to use, some are open-source and cost money, and some are open-source and free to use.

I'd like to talk about the open-source and free to use options that are available, because free just makes sense.

For my bachelor thesis project this year I took on building a custom web app to locate an automated external defibrillator (AED) in the event of an emergency cardiac situation at Selkirk College in Castlegar, BC. The main functionality was to locate an AED and provide the user indoor routing information to it and back to the emergency scene. Indoor routing isn't a typical feature of free apps, so I needed to create my own app that could handle this. I decided to use a platform called Leaflet which is a JavaScript library used to create interactive web maps and apps. This process did require a fair amount of coding and was built using HTML, JavaScript and CSS. My app required some geoprocessing functionality and this was made possible using Leaflet Indoor, GeoJSON Path Finder and a wonderful JavaScript library called Turf.js. Turf.js provides fast geospatial analysis that runs in the web browser and can be utilized by incorporating small snippets of code from the library into your own app script. In the end I was able to create an app for free using open-source technology that satisfied my needs with relatively a small amount of coding needed.

"But wait, Chad didn't you say I could create an app with little or no coding at all?"

Yes, I did. However, this really depends on what your needs are.

If you are looking to just have an app to display interactive information on a map, I recommend creating a map using Mapbox Studio and then downloading the Mapbox Studio Preview app to view your app on a mobile device. If you are a small business there is a very generous free tier which allows 25,000 users the ability to connect a month for free.

If you need an app to collect data, I would suggest using one of the many free apps that does this already.

If you are looking for a little more of a snazzy platform with geoprocessing capabilities you may need to invest in learning SOME coding skills. There is quite a bit of documentation online to help you get you started and loads of free resources to learn from.

Although these are just some of the free options available, you can see that it is entirely possible to either create your own app or utilize pre-existing apps for free. This could save your business some dollars! Just remember that free doesn't always mean free. A lot of work goes into creating these apps and platforms and if you have the ability consider donating to the cause or upgrading to their paid platforms.