From Maps to Apps

In a course taught by Edward Pultar of USC Dornsife’s Spatial Sciences Institute, students learn to develop apps that help solve real-world problems.
ByAndrew Good

Every day, smartphone users rely on mapping data for directions, weather and social media. But graduate students in a new mobile design course at USC Dornsife are finding more creative uses for their phones, such as tracking unexploded bombs on old testing ranges or helping Los Angeles Metro workers navigate subway lines.

The course was developed as a pilot program last year by Edward Pultar of the Spatial Sciences Institute, housed at USC Dornsife. Pultar, a researcher on travel behavior and social media mapping technology, saw a need for students to be prepared to enter the mobile world.

Geographic Information Science (GIS) is a growing field with a need for more programmers, Pultar said. The technology has a diverse range of applications, and creative students with mobile development skills have plenty of opportunities to use it outside the classroom.

“It’s a very horizontal discipline with lots of verticals,” Pultar said. “The big three are government, private sector/industry and academic research.”

Organizations like the military and forestry service are looking at mobile apps that can yield real-time data about changes in the field, better known as remote environmental monitoring and mobile data acquisition.

Pultar has firsthand experience in this area. He and his brother designed Valarm, a mobile data analysis app that tracks atmospheric changes, electricity usage and shipments in transit. They’ve used Valarm to compare air pollution particle levels from Palm Springs to Santa Monica, but there are many more mobile and stationary sensor applications possible. For example, a vintner in Santa Barbara uses the app to monitor the humidity and temperature of his vineyard as well as CO2 levels in his winery.


Teaching the Geographic Information Science course is Edward Pultar, who co-designed a mobile data analysis app that tracks atmospheric changes, electricity usage and shipments in transit. Photo by Smith Long.

The first year’s students were responsible for developing their own apps, several of which were designed to solve real-world problems they encountered in their jobs.

That level of practicality was appealing to Chris Weidemann, who finds unexploded bombs at military testing sites across the country for a federal contractor in Washington, D.C.

“That’s kind of what Dr. Pultar encouraged us to do — to look at solving a problem we face any given day,” Weidemann said. “Not only was I fulfilling a course, but it improved my professional career as well.”

Weidemann said the ordnance disposal industry traditionally finds and removes unexploded weapons using heavy machinery and metal detectors, in addition to documenting what was dug up with a camera, pen and paper.

“We didn’t need to be carrying all that — you could replace it with a tablet,” he said.

His app takes a digital map created by the heavy equipment and puts it into a more accessible, mobile format, tracking data entries and images at the same time. All of that is routed back to a database rather than being manually entered. The app is now in final testing, Weidemann said, and it has already provided a significant boost in efficiency.

Michael Quant, another GIS student, is a software engineer for Los Angeles Metro, where his department maps out the location of equipment on Metro rail lines. He said the benefit of the class was being immersed in the Java and Android programming languages, as well as a plethora of online resources he could turn to for future reference.

The course gave Quant a chance to develop a tool for work crews when they’re on unfamiliar lines. The app lets them promptly identify where certain equipment is kept. For new crewmembers, as well as those changing lines, it eases the transition as they find their way around.

Though his app is still in development, Quant said the experience has given him a good base from which he can develop new tools in the future, building on the data he collected for his project.

Weidemann, who is a hiring manager at his ordnance disposal company, said the skills he learned are exactly what he’s looking for when meeting new recruits. The GIS industry as a whole is evolving, he added.

“We’re moving away from traditional cartography and even analysis, and more toward creating Web applications and putting GIS data into the hands of users,” Weidemann explained. “I look for technical users when I hire . . . general cartography is less of a concern. I can teach that pretty quickly, but I can’t always find someone who can make a map and do some programming on the side.”