Anyone can make a Google map, but if you want to start one in the field – surveying plants, buildings, people, public art – you need an app for that. Something that geolocates your field notes. Something that can yield a proper map without taking two semesters of GIS classes.
Lucky for you, I’ve tested many of these apps for Android so you don’t have to.
How It Works
If you’re brand new to smartphone-based map-making, you’ll need to know a few key terms.
Track: Picture a line on a map. When you ‘record a track,’ the GPS draws a line wherever you go, tracing your path.
Waypoint: Like a thumbtack on a map. It’s a point in space, defined by latitude and longitude.
No matter which app you choose, this is how it works:
Download the app and install it. Go outside. Make sure your GPS is on.
Open the app. If it’s a good app, it will be obvious how to start recording data, and how to add notes to your points. If it’s not obvious after a few minutes, try another app.
When you’re done, stop recording. Then you need to get that map off your phone and into something like Google Earth, Google Maps, Open Street Map or ArcGIS.
Key features of a decent map-making app:
- Usability. Is it obvious how it works? Is it easy to use?
- Exportable data. If it’s locked up on the phone, it’s no good.
- Data format. For this round, I focused on GPX. It’s an open (non-proprietary) format for GPS data. It plays nice with most applications, most of the time.
- File management. When an app saves data files, it’s nice to not have to hunt for them. Bonus points for file names that make sense. Double bonus points for direct connectivity to cloud apps like Dropbox. Triple bonus points for apps that directly interface with Google apps.
I thought a non-Google app might have a fighting chance in this game, but I was wrong. Google’s MyTracks is the best app I’ve tried. I’ve been using it for years to track bike rides, but had no idea how feature-rich it was until I put it to the test against other apps. It’s easy to use and easy on the eye. You can send your maps directly to your Google account as a Map, Spreadsheet or Fusion Table. You can also save to GPX, KML, CSV or TCX.
The demo video – while more athletic than academic in nature – pretty much says it all.
If you’d like to play with some worthy contenders, I recommend these two apps:
Free. Truly a GPS Swiss Army knife with a fun, intuitive interface.
- On export, saves waypoints and/or tracks to a uniquely named file (like Waypoints -0234234-343894.gpx). This is great for repeat use – no overwriting previously collected data.
- Can import other KML or GPX files.
- Both GPX and KML files import into Google Earth with no problem.
- Direct connectivity to other apps like Dropbox, email, Evernote.
- Files write to the root of the SD card, not into a separate folder. This isn’t too terrible, however, considering the export-to-apps functionality.
- No direct connectivity to Google apps.
I like this app. It’s really fun to play with. It’s immediately apparent what it does and how to do it.
Free. Not a great interface, but it exports every data format under the sun.
- Exports to Google KML, GPSMap GPS, Garmin CSV, Geocode GEO, GPS Exchange GPX files, TomTom ASCII, Google Fusion Tables and KMZ.
- Interacts directly with the Google Earth Android app. Cool feature, but good luck finding it. I stumbled across it by accident!
- Ample documentation.
- Files import into Google Earth with no problem.
- Extra neat little feature: Use a photo as a placemark instead of a generic graphic, like a thumbtack. Take a picture, import it, use it to mark a place.
- The interface is muddy enough that I found myself reading the manual. And the manual is dense.
- No direct export to cloud apps (Dropbox, Evernote).
- Doesn’t completely stop running if you exit the app to your home screen. Keep an eye on your notification bar and make sure the icon is gone.
If you’re not already conversant with mobile mapmaking, this one is tough to start with. But if you like getting your hands a little data dirty, this might be right up your alley.
My next piece in this series will cover geolocated multimedia for Android. I’m looking for ways to gracefully package photos and videos with waypoints, so if you have any suggestions let me know in the comments. In the meantime, we’ll hear from Christine Murray on iPhone apps.
[UPDATE: Here's Christine's review of Fulcrum, a data collection app for iPhone/iPad. Custom forms, photos, useful export formats: