By Marc Hudson
Director of Land Protection for Southwest Georgia
Georgia Land Trust
Chattahoochee Valley Land Trust


Though this article is written specifically for Land Trust professionals, others in the Natural Resources field may find it useful. This is more or less an instruction guide on how to turn your iPhone or Android-powered phone into a replacement for standard camera and GPS unit.

In case you haven’t noticed, smartphones have done some considerable growing up in recent years, becoming handy mobile computing devices. They’ve also recently acquired fairly standard camera and GPS application, making them decent replacements for a point-and-shoot camera and directional GPS, such as the ubiquitous Tom-Tom. Through the use of some widely available applications, you can now use them for most, if not all, the requirements of doing your basic ecological field report or baseline documentation report.

I’m basing my experience from work with my own HTC Incredible, which is an Android-powered device GPS capable with an eight megapixel camera. Theoretically, anything outlined here should be possible on any other Android-powered handset, keeping in mind some older phones are going to have less capable cameras, slower processing speeds or lower-powered GPS which may make following the recommendations more difficult. 

Though I’m working with Android, I’ll also be providing alternatives for those iPhone users out there as well.

What you’ll need:

Android-powered phone ($100-$300 w/contract, $300 – $600 without)
Camera application with geotagging (many free ones)
Orux Maps application (free)
Ebook and/or PDF reader (many free)
Overboard Waterproof Case ($24)
iPhone ($100-$300 w/contract, $400 – $700 without)
Camera application with geotagging (many free ones)
MotionX-GPS for iPhone ($3)
Ebook and/or PDF Reader (many free)
Otterbox Waterproof iPhone case ($40-$50)


What you’ll notice about the above are the prices is: Buying an Android phone or an iPhone can be expensive. However, the expense is fairly light relative to the cost of what you’re replacing. A good Garmin GPS handset is $400 and a point and shoot camera can run you from $100-200. An Android phone or IPhone $200 on contract is relatively inexpensive. The below is a quick guide on what you can now do as far as mapping, taking geotagged photos and uploading many of the plant identification guides as ebooks or PDFs for field use.


Both Orux Maps and MotionX are powerful little map applications which work by mimicking the operating system of your average Garmin or Trimble GPS unit. Those who use Garmin GPS will find them extremely familiar. With them you can still take waypoints, tracks and read your elevation, compass directions, upload and download shapefiles, etc… but because they have an online functionality you can do more with them than with your average GPS. Each has access to online map databases from which you can download maps in the field.

For example, Orux Maps gives me free access to all the maps from Charts, Cloudmade, Google Earth, Google Maps, Google Terrain, Hike & Bike, Microsoft Earth, Microsoft Maps, OpenStreetMap, Statkart Topo, WMS and Yandex. While in the field you can access aerial maps, topos, road maps and trail maps. If you’re working in an area without a 3G signal (which is often in my case) prior to getting out of 3G range, you can access all the maps for a specific area and download them. That way, you can use them at any time, regardless of whether  you have 3G or cell phone signal. With Orux maps, I can record waypoints, tracks and shapefiles in either the Garmin .gpx format, or Google Earth.kml, making all the data as transferable as any taken with a GPS unit.



For iPhone users, ESRI has also come with an ARC GIS app for the iPhone 3 and 3GS. You can use the app to upload and download all of your ARCGis shapefiles and layers, and those layers will be aware of your location. However, in their infinite wisdom, ESRI has not included a way to make waypoints or tracks. On the bright side, they have included a developer’s kit, which should mean in any time now independent developers will be able to build off their software to make a better software bundle. So, keep looking.

 Geotagging Photos

Keeping track of precisely where your photos were taken was previously a very arduous thing. You either had to buy a geotagging dongle for your expensive DSLR camera, buy a GPS equipped camera (ballpark $300), or bring your notebook and try to coordinate photo number with your GPS coordinates (error prone and time consuming). Now, most camera apps for a smartphone offer a geotagging function which saves the lat/long as part as the photo file. Finding out the lat/long of your photo is as easy as right-clicking on the photo on your computer and looking at the photos information. There are numerous camera apps that offer this function, and picking which one you want to use is more a function of which camera application you prefer for taking photos. The native (pre-installed) camera app for Android phones will do this. For myself, I use an app called Vignette, which I prefer because it gives me greater control over my photo functions. Best of all, most smartphones come with a 5 megapixel camera minimum. Many have an 8 megapixel (my own does), and there are even a few out there with as many as 12 megapixel sensors crammed into their phone, which means you can even take some decent pictures.

Plant Identification Guides

If you are not aware, smartphones are capable of reading e-books and using a number of e-book reading apps. If you’re willing to pay, you can gain access to the giant library of books available to Amazon’s Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s EBook store and the plethora of books available on the iTunes store. However, there are a number of free e-book readers out there which read common e-book formats, my favorite being Aldiko. If you’re an iPhone reader, the Audubon Society has also gone through the process of taking all of their field guides and turning them into iPhone applications available for your purchase. Furthermore you can read PDFs on a smartphone, so anything available in that format is free to use as well.

My favorite thing to do is just to save a number of pictures to my phone of plants I often forget or confuse. I have these pictures organized into folders with notes so that I can browse them at my leisure when out in the field. Other people may like to set up their own system to taste. Finally, you do have the internet at your fingertips with a smartphone, so anything you may need to look up can be assuming you can get a 3G signal.

Waterproof Case

Whether or not to purchase a waterproof case if up to you; however, I recommend it. Otterbox makes a waterproof case for nearly every Android-powered phone (except my own HTC Incredible) and the iPhone. If Otterbox doesn’t make a case for you, then the Overboard Waterproof Case is a workable alternative. In both cases, the casing is still touch sensitive, which means you can still get all that you need out of your touchscreen.