I think there's a cool community around AppStudio. It's fun, tangentially, to be part of that community and see that many people are excited about creating GIS apps that aren't just for GIS specialists but are for all kinds of people.
New Zealand Agency Develops Mobile App with ArcGIS AppStudio to Improve Public Land Access
From volcanoes to snowy mountains to Alpine lakes and beaches, the small island nation of New Zealand has an array of stunning landscapes for residents and tourists alike to enjoy. Of New Zealand's land, close to 30 percent—about 31,000 square miles—is publicly owned with some degree of protection to preserve its environmental, scenic, historical, or recreational value. This includes national parks, marine and national reserves, and wilderness areas that the public can use for recreational activities like camping, hiking, or fishing.
To maintain and improve public access to the outdoors, the New Zealand Walking Access Commission was established in 2010 because of public feedback. In addition to providing education about public access rights and developing a national strategy on outdoor access, the agency produces a comprehensive set of digital maps to help users know where land is publicly accessible. The agency developed a no-cost desktop solution to host these maps, but the public requested a solution that was usable in the field and available offline.
The geographic information system (GIS) team of the New Zealand Walking Access Commission developed a free mobile application based on testing and feedback provided by actual users. The mobile app has received positive feedback from the community and has enabled the agency to ensure continued public access to the scenic lands of New Zealand.
The New Zealand Walking Access Commission
Develop a mobile application with a set of digital maps to help users know where public land is versus privately owned land.
The agency created the Pocket Maps mobile application with offline functionality, a free tool for New Zealand residents.
The previous solution was a free, public-facing mapping system that was accessible by a web browser and offered a comprehensive overview of publicly accessible land in New Zealand. The maps included tracks and trails for activities like walking, mountain biking, and horseback riding, as well as recreational infrastructures like campsite and hut locations. However, the site wasn't user-friendly, and the public wanted a mobile app, according to Danica Torres, a GIS analyst for the Walking Access Commission.
"Throughout the years, we've just been constantly getting feedback from [people] asking us for a mobile app that they could take outdoors because they don't find it particularly useful to go on their web browser," says Torres.
Julian Hitchman, a GIS analyst with the commission, adds, "The public-facing set of maps does a great job of showing people where they can see public access across New Zealand. But the function of that is very much . . . desktop focused. And when it comes to having that on your phone or something else, it's not good."
Torres explains that as of 2019, the commission didn't have the technical infrastructure to create a mobile application because the software system had some limitations. The commission then transitioned to ArcGIS Enterprise, a foundational software system for GIS, mapping and analytics, and data management. Torres says this system opened a lot of opportunities for the GIS team to explore new products and get new capabilities, such as developing a mobile app.
Once ArcGIS Enterprise was set up and commission staff were trained, the GIS team shifted its focus to a customer-oriented mobile app for publicly accessible lands.
Public users had given extensive feedback about what capabilities they wanted in the app. The GIS team began its work to revamp the commission's free public resources by revisiting this feedback. After that, the team met with staff at Eagle Technology, the authorized distributor of Esri products in New Zealand, to discuss how they could create an app, what products in the Esri suite could help, the commission's project goals, and if the solution could be made in-house by the GIS team. They also talked about the costs of the potential solutions and the impact on the team's allotted budget.
The technical advisers of Eagle Technology presented several options, including two Esri solutions and a fully customizable one from a third party. The customizable solution would have been too expensive and difficult to maintain, so the GIS team members decided to use a solution that was included with their ArcGIS Enterprise agreement and would present no additional cost to deploy: ArcGIS AppStudio. ArcGIS AppStudio is a no-code/low-code platform for creating native mobile apps.
"[Eagle Technology] gave us a potential mock-up of what the app could look like if we used AppStudio and, based on that initial discussion, it seemed like AppStudio was more suitable for us because it was more user focused. We can upload it to the Apple App Store [and Google Play], and we can add our branding to it. It also seemed more user-friendly," says Torres.
The GIS team joined the Esri Advantage Program. The team members started working with Paul Haakma, a GIS technology adviser with Eagle Technology, to begin developing the app, including getting the data ready and determining how they wanted it to look. According to Torres, they collaborated closely with Haakma on the app's customization and publishing it to the app stores.
Next, Torres gathered a group of existing desktop solution users and key stakeholders to conduct user testing and get feedback on functionality and design. For design, Hitchman says they partnered with the commission's communications team to give the app icons that reflected the current mapping system, as well as the right colors and assets to create a custom look that would still be consistent with the agency's existing branding.
"We knew that AppStudio is powerful enough and customizable enough to be able to make it a cohesive look and feel. It wasn't enough to make something that was kind of out of the box," says Hitchman.
Torres and Hitchman also had a list of features they wanted to incorporate in the new app, including offline capability, the ability to display specific layers to users, and the option for users to see where they are on a map. The team was also conscious of the app size because users may not have a phone with much storage.
Torres and Hitchman learned to use AppStudio by watching video tutorials, exploring the available templates, and practicing. Torres says she began by feeding dummy data into AppStudio to experiment with the look and feel, and then put in a small dataset from the existing mapping system to begin development.
"It was a process of diving in and seeing how things work," says Hitchman. "The AppStudio resources are really useful. The Esri Community [site] for AppStudio also was helpful. So there were a lot of resources that I think we could lean on."
The new Pocket Maps mobile app officially launched in September 2021. Recent metrics show there are more than 4,000 active devices across Android and Apple platforms, with a continuing rise in users. The two largest audiences so far are hikers and anglers. The GIS team worked with the communications team to advertise the Pocket Maps app via news articles, radio interviews, and even a launch event. Torres says it's a convenient mobile app that users can take with them in the field.
Of the options the GIS team considered, Hitchman says AppStudio offered the greatest amount of functionality out of the box with the available templates. He says that he and Torres had limited coding and web development skills, but the ready-made templates made AppStudio very accessible. In addition, Hitchman enjoyed the customization, which he says was "superior to other options."
"I think you can go as far as you want with AppStudio," says Hitchman. "The fact that it can be so customized and made so closely [to match] what our existing branding is and made to look like . . . an app that we made is super important."
The GIS team also liked that AppStudio was user-friendly. Torres says the solution is intuitive and allowed her to experiment easily with the app to learn how to use it.
"The fact that you can test something, break it, or change something and then immediately go and look at ArcGIS AppStudio Player and see what it's doing is a fun and iterative process. The visual feedback of that is very enjoyable," says Hitchman.
The Pocket Maps app was created in response to public feedback, and Torres says she likes that the Walking Access Commission shifted its strategy to work with residents first to develop the offline mapping system and meet their needs.
"I think that collaboration between us and [residents] is quite important for them to feel like they are part of the process and what we are creating is for them," says Torres.
"Our support, both publicly and at an agency level, has been really strong for the team to make maps and to make comprehensive and accurate data available for free to the public," adds Hitchman. "We are acutely aware that the role that we have is important to a . . . specific set of people. So we want to ensure that we're keeping them happy and getting the information they need."
The team members say the feedback has been positive, and they look forward to adding capabilities the public wants to see. For example, they would like to have topographic maps available offline and continue to provide more data from the desktop mapping system on things like tracks, trails, and campsites.