Getting Down to Business: Jason Wheatley of Century Engineering, Inc
Jason Wheatley is the Geospatial Technologies (GIS) Manager for Century Engineering, Inc. in Hunt Valley, Maryland. He has worked in both the public and private geospatial industries since 2004. He received a B.S. in Geography, as well as a M.S. in GIS and Public Administration from Salisbury University (Salisbury, MD). The Century Geospatial Technologies Group (GIS Group) provides technology consultant services to clients within federal, state, local governments, as well as the private sector throughout the Mid-Atlantic Region.
Our team sat down with Jason and asked him about his data collection methods, the GIS industry and the future of geospatial technologies.
Jason Wheatley from Century Engineering
What do you and your company do? Who hires you?
Century Engineering, Inc. (Century) is a multi-discipline consulting engineering firm offering professional planning and design services for all facility types, transportation, environmental, water and utility industries across the Mid-Atlantic Region. The Century GIS Group provides geospatial consultant services ranging from data development to complete system design. Our products support asset management, analyses, reporting and everything between. We work with numerous state DOTs and transit, environmental protection agencies, county and local governments, universities and private agencies.
My role within Century, as lead of the GIS Group, is to consult with the clients of our various verticals to analyze business requirements and translate their needs into effective technology solutions. Our team has nearly 40 years of combined GIS, web and software development experience. We are currently working on some really cool technologies, if I do say so myself, that we are very excited about. 2016 should prove to be a very dynamic year for Century’s GIS Group.
Tell us a little bit about the history between Century and Fulcrum?
So the very first time we began exploring Fulcrum as an option for field data capture was back in early 2011. Century had a task to perform a statewide inventory and assessment of pedestrian-related amenities (signals, pushbuttons, crosswalks, curb ramps) for all state-owned, signalized intersections for the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA). As you can imagine, the data model for this consisted of a series of related tables, and at that time mobile data collection solutions were often limited to flat data structures. We continued to keep an eye on Fulcrum developments.
Fast forward two years to late 2013. We were again faced with a large-scale field collection effort for the Delaware Department of Transportation’s (DelDOT) Railroad Section. Since our initial review, Fulcrum had evolved into a robust solution that supported all of our data modeling needs, as well as provided optimized accessibility options with an open API and webhook capabilities. The DelDOT Railroad Program Management System (RPM) is highlighted in a Fulcrum case study so I won’t go into details there. However, what began as an asset inventory has now evolved into a full-scale program management solution that addresses the entire life-cycle of railroad crossing assets from as-builts, maintenance programming, incident tracking, project planning/budgeting and construction monitoring. All of these components interface with Fulcrum to some capacity, and are presented through web/mobile applications providing instant client access to the information they need to make informed decisions.
Photo 1. DelDOT RPM System Diagram
To date, Century has used Fulcrum to create over 50 mobile data collection applications, deriving over 100,000 records, and over 300,000 site photographs.
In the A&E space, asset inventories and regular inspections are key to maintaining functional and safe infrastructure. Our GIS Group has extensive experience in this realm, and there is no question that Fulcrum has become a crucial component of our asset management solution offerings. We appreciate the solid working relationship we have with the Fulcrum team, and hope to continue to nurture that relationship moving into 2016.
Photo 2. Anne Arundel County, Maryland Ramp Inventory Viewer
What software/technology stack does Century use?
We tend to lean towards open source software (FOSS4G/FOSS) as it provides us with the freedom we need to build client products with only the technologies necessary. However we work with numerous clients, some of which have existing system investments that we must work within and/or be able to incorporate our products. Most of our current projects involve some form of web development and for those projects we do have a “typical” stack.
For mobile data collection, we obviously leverage Fulcrum for all field capture requirements. We’ve built a sophisticated node.js webhook program that allows us to transmit the data collected in Fulcrum into local and/or hosted RDBMS. These are most often onsite PostgreSQL/PostGIS instances or CARTO. From there we handle data rendering using the tiling and SQL capabilities of CARTO for web applications, or we utilize GeoServer if there are desktop GIS data consumption requirements. We have come to rely quite heavily on CARTO for our mapping applications, as it pairs nicely with Fulcrum through webhooks or data shares. Not to mention the ability to leverage the library of PostGIS spatial SQL functions in the browser opens up opportunities to build some slick tools within our applications.
Photo 3. Web Query Builder Dialog – Enables complex data filtering
Our web and mapping applications leverage several JS libraries including Leaflet/Bootleaf and Google Maps API. Leaflet/Bootleaf provides the lightweight library by which we can make sure our web maps are performant and responsive for mobile. Google Maps remains the preferred basemap within A&E, especially when StreetView is incorporated. We use D3.js to develop data-driven graphics representing the most important data visually, and placing it at the fingertips of our end users. AngularJS is our preferred framework for building these dynamic applications, and we deploy all of this primarily on Amazon Web Services. Whew!
Photo 4. DelDOT RPM Dashboard
What technologies in the last five years have made your workflows simpler?
There are so many things within the last five years that have drastically improved the way we work. The easy ones to identify are cloud storage and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS). I really don’t like the term “cloud”, but at this time it is the word that everyone associates with hosted environments so I’ll continue to use it for now. The Century GIS Group is nearly 100% reliant on hosted storage and software. We use these solutions for everything from project management to client production. It enables our team to be able to access project files from any location, on any device, so we can be extremely responsive to issues and client requests. We also have a few staff that work primarily from remote locations, so our shift to hosted solutions was almost necessary for the sake of efficiency.
Photo 5. DelDOT RPM Railroad Asset Map Viewer
Walk me through a typical project.
Working for a multi-discipline engineering firm means that there really is no “typical” project. The GIS Group prefers this structure because we are made up of a team of knowledge hungry folks who love new challenges. We provide services for transportation, water resources, environmental, facilities, construction, inspections, and many more. All for a large list of diverse clients that each have unique needs. In the five years I’ve been with Century, I cannot say any two projects we’ve worked on have been very similar.
Our team focuses a lot of time on client consultation and design to make sure we fully understand their business requirements and help them to realize all of the ways technology can be applied to enhance their workflows. The adage “measure twice, cut once” comes to mind. As technology-based consultants we are not only accountable for the quality of the solutions we develop, but we have an obligation to maximize our client’s return on investment. Before one line of code is written, or one data model is derived, we solidify our understanding of the problem and design for all potential stakeholders. Once production begins, we employ a continuous delivery schedule keeping the project on-task with bite-size delivery of goods. This enables us to leverage immediate client feedback to drive future development and adjust priorities should clients’ needs change without significant impacts to project budgets.
Many of our recent projects use similar technologies to what we developed for the DelDOT RPM project. We are in the process of building out the core capabilities of the system into a standalone information management solution that can be implemented for nearly any application with minimal customization. This is an exciting venture for the Century GIS Group.
How did you get involved in GIS and data collection?
I officially began my GIS career in 2004 working in academia for the Eastern Shore Regional GIS Cooperative (ESRGC) at my alma mater, Salisbury University. In 2009, after finishing my Masters, I moved into private sector GIS consultancy where I have remained since.
My first exposure to field collection was as a student intern with the Geography Department using large, handheld units with extremely slow software and rudimentary data entry screens. To be fair, at that time tablet computers and smartphones were almost non-existent. In fact, I’m pretty sure I still had a pager. Thankfully, much has changed since then. Tablets and smart devices have completely modified the way the mobile workforce operates through sophisticated enterprise-driven applications.
Nearly all of the Century GIS Group projects involve some level of field data capture or reconnaissance. We now use tablet devices with Fulcrum for all of our collection efforts. When positional accuracies are of concern, we pair our tablets with Bluetooth enable GNSS/GPS receivers with WAAS for real-time sub-meter location correction. For precision location capture we can even use our RTK subscription with an NTRIP client. We have replaced the traditional bulky GPS collection units with a streamlined approach using tablets, smartphones, and Fulcrum.
What is the Maryland geospatial community like? Where does it shine and where does it fall short?
Century’s market actually covers most of the Mid-Atlantic Region. Our headquarters is in Hunt Valley, MD, just north of Baltimore City. However, we have offices in Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. The geospatial community in the Mid-Atlantic Region is very strong and there are great relationships between the public, private, and educational sectors. The private side competition is healthy. Public sector embrace of the technology is strong. And our educators stay well connected to ensure our young talent are prepared with the skills necessary to contribute to a rapidly changing industry.
We have professional organizations such as the Maryland State Geographic Information Committee (MSGIC), the Delaware Geospatial Data Committee (DGDC), and the Pennsylvania Mapping & Geographic Information Consortium (PAMAGIC). These organizations help to keep professionals connected through regular meetings, and educational opportunities. The conference scene is also very solid. The Towson University Annual GIS Conference (TUgis) has been held for over 20 years and continues to be a key annual event that brings together GIS professionals from all over the region to share projects, ideas, and inspire collaboration over a few #geobeers. Delaware and Pennsylvania also have regular events, and there are several regional User Group meetings. Baltimore even just started a #MapTime chapter, which to me is very exciting.
I think it’s safe to say we are fairly connected here. The sense of community is deep, and consists of a diverse range of folks from various backgrounds and expertise. The Century GIS Group proud to be a part of this community and to contribute to the growth of our industry and the young professionals entering the workforce.
Battle of Fields: How do you manage your apps. An example of how you have used these following fields
We have used Record Linking in several of our apps to help us manage database relationships across the collection of assets/information that have different workflows. One example is with our DelDOT RPM project and the ability to catalog construction inspections against physical asset inventory data. For the construction monitoring application, we use Record Linking to handle the large list of the standard items catalog. This is a full list of acceptable materials that can be used by contractors. This relationship provides a dynamically filtered choice list of items for the field teams to use when logging materials received or utilized for a particular construction project. The dynamic nature of the relationship allows us to limit the list to either contract specific or project year specific items.
Nearly all of our apps contain at least one repeatable field. They allow us to handle not only many-to-one relationships, but we use them specifically for inspection applications whereby each inspection is performed on a new record to enforce a lineage of that feature throughout its lifespan. This is especially important when dealing with compliance issues and the need to provide accountability that compliance measures are being implemented.
Many of our forms are extremely complex. We use visibility rules to help streamline the entry process and make the field users’ job easier and eliminate guess work. Many forms have items that are only relevant when a previous entry item hits some specific criteria. Through visibility rules, we can control how the form is displayed and only shows the user exactly what they should be filling out. This allows them to spend more time focusing on the inventory or inspection, and less time determining what should be collected.
Our use of Calculation Fields is still new, and we have a lot of great ideas for implementations moving forward. The primary way we use them now is for complex visibility and requirement rules, and to provide summaries at the parent level of child record counts and aggregated content. Another example is used to display an aggregate list of child level inspection “flags” that require follow-up at the parent level.
Photo 6. Fulcrum Screenshot – Construction Management Application
Are geospatial projects getting simpler or faster?
Faster? Most definitely.
Simpler? I’m not so sure. Does something have to be “simple” before it can be “simpler”?
Not that long ago, a geospatial professional was someone tucked in a corner making on-demand paper maps, digitizing data, and performing analyses within push-button GUIs. While those skills are still relevant, GIS professionals today find themselves requiring far greater skillsets that reach deeper into the realm of information technologies. Whether you are a dedicated web developer, an analyst dabbling in Python to automate some process, or a business analyst in charge of extracting client needs and translating those into physical solutions… Our roles have changed. GIS projects that remain completely within the desktop environment are few and far between these days. And from my perspective, the realm of GIS consultancy is becoming less about “doing” GIS, and more about building tools and systems that allow others to “do” the GISing.
Many of the reasons our industry is faster does indeed correlate with the “simpler” tools and software workflows that are available today. However, the fact that one no longer requires knowledge of GIS in order to stand up something like a web map, means that our roles as geospatial experts have to build upon that basic capability and not simply replicate it. In the IT realm, where I believe we find ourselves heading and have been for some time, ideas thought of as “innovative” quickly become standard. The role of geospatial professionals today should be to keep pushing the boundaries and not accept the status quo. At least if we wish to be successful in this rapidly evolving industry, and not risk getting fully absorbed by IT. Though I’m not sure that is necessarily a bad thing.
Thanks to Jason Wheatley of Century Engineering for the great interview! If you use Fulcrum in your daily workflow, and would like to have your business featured in our Getting Down To Business series, reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org