Tag Archives: GPS accuracy

Mapping Curb Ramp Accessibility around a Silver Spring, MD Assisted Living Facility

Submitted by Jenny Rewolinski, University of Maryland, B.S. Community Health 2016

I just completed a spring internship with the National Library of Medicine (NLM). My goal was to demonstrate what a typical user of the Community Health Maps (CHM) blog might experience, while using the low cost resources it reviews to develop a mapping project with a public health focus. I read through the case studies on the CHM blog and used its labs to develop my project plan and to guide my related decisions.

Because of my experience with elderly relatives and my background in public health, I centered my project on how the senior population of a nearby Assisted Living Facility might safely navigate local sidewalks. According to the 2014 American Community Survey, 23% of people over 65 have some sort ambulatory disability. With this in mind, I decided to map local curb ramps –sloped transitions between sidewalks and streets which function as accessibility enhancements to help those with mobility issues to cross streets safely.

JennyDataCollection

Figure 1. Curb Ramp Data Collection using the iForm app

I used CHM Lab 1: Field Data Collection to learn how to design my own data collection form using iForm. My Curb Ramp form captured curb ramp location, conditions, and other observations such as seniors using the curb ramps, steep or damaged curb ramps, and a lack of sidewalks in the area. As discussed in a prior blog post, How Accurate is the GPS on my Smart Phone?, phone geolocation is usually accurate up to 8 meters. This was not precise enough for my curb ramp data, so I corrected for this on my form.  Over the course of 8 hours spanning 2 days, and with 2 other interns I collected 103 existing curb ramps and locations where curb ramps might aid accessibility.

iFormCurbRampForm

Figure 2. iForm Curb Ramp Data Collection Form

Next, I brought my iForm curb ramp data from my phone into the QGIS software by using instructions from CHM Lab 2: Bringing Field Data into QGIS.  I also used CHM Labs 3: Combining Field Data with Other Organizational Data and CHM Lab 4: Basic Spatial Analysis  to add data layers and to perform spatial analysis to finalize my map.

Map

Figure 3. Curb Ramp Accessibility of Senior Population of Silver Spring Assisted Living Center Map

This is my project map! I completed construction of my map using CHM Lab 5: Cartography with QGIS. In addition to my curb ramp data points, I added data layers for sidewalks, roads, places of interest (such as grocery stores, restaurants, bus stops,  theaters), and my Assisted Living Facility. My goal was to raise awareness of how accessibility can impact seniors’ sense of autonomy and empowerment, and their ability to exercise and to lead a healthier lifestyle. This map also provides recommendations for where more curb ramps should be placed based on observations during data collection. I plan to discuss this map and curb ramp recommendations with the city of Silver Spring and to create “safest route” guides for popular local destinations.

SafestRoute

Figure 4. A Safest Route Guide example showing safe and dangerous routes based on location of curb ramps and sidewalks

GIS has a huge potential to help us analyze health issues. When I began my project at NLM, I thought I would simply be mapping the location of curb ramps near a local Assisted Living Facility; however I discovered the significant need for more curb ramps as well as sidewalks around my project area.

I believe the conclusions I was able to reach by using the low cost CHM resources CHM are accurate and workable. I came to NLM with little to no GIS knowledge yet I learned from the CHM GIS labs, collected curb ramp data points and created a map that may bring awareness to a public health issue. In doing so I believe my experience is typical of many CHM users.

If I can do it, you can too!

How Accurate is the GPS on my Smart Phone? (Part 2)

In Part 1, I introduced the three parts of the hybrid locational system used by tablets and smart phones. Now I’ll discuss each individually.

Assisted-GPS (A-GPS)

A-GPS is by far the most accurate of the three systems on your phone. A-GPS operates a little differently than the typical handheld GPS receiver. The assistance is provided by the cellular network. When connected to a cellular network the smart phone will download data about the GPS satellite constellation. This allows the phone to lock in on a position much more quickly than it could otherwise. The GPS functionality of a smart phone can still be used if the cellular network is unavailable.  However,  when disconnected from a network your phone will take several minutes to hone in on your location, versus just seconds when the network is available.

The A-GPS receivers on iPhones have steadily improved from the iPhone 3 to the iPhone 5. In addition to the U.S. DOD GPS system, the Russians have a satellite navigation system called GLONASS. The newest smart phones (e.g., iPhone 4S and iPhone 5) now have GPS chips that use both satellite systems giving increased accuracy!  Europe, India and China are also developing satellite navigation systems and in the not too distant future GPS receivers may be able to use several systems simultaneously and become even more accurate.

WiFi and Network Positioning

For any GPS to work the antennae needs a clear view of the sky. Users of smart phones will frequently be in “urban canyons” or indoors. This is where WiFi and cellular network positioning become necessary. Both of these methods are used by smart phones as indoor positioning systems. The phone will use a hybrid approach, using all three methods to locate you. These other two technologies aren’t nearly as accurate as A-GPS, but can still locate you sufficiently to find the closest vanilla latte!

Generally WiFi positioning is more accurate than cellular network positioning. It uses wireless access points and measures the  intensity of the received signal from one or more networks to find the position. Interestingly it doesn’t require your device to be WiFi enabled to work.

Cellular network positioning triangulates your position based off of nearby cell phone towers. Phone companies have precise locations for their cell towers, which when combined with signal strength can be used to approximate your location. Both of these techniques are dependent on overlapping signals from either access points and cellular towers. Therefore they’re more accurate in urban settings.

So What’s It All Mean?

From numerous tests the typical GPS receiver will achieve an accuracy of 1-5 meters.  Unfortunately assisted-GPS accuracies have not been studied nearly as thoroughly as typical GPS receivers. The best studies to date are those by Dr. Paul Zandbergen at the University of New Mexico. In 2009 he published findings showing that an iPhone 3 had an average accuracy of 8 meters. In that study the error never exceeded 30 meters. Below are the results of his 2009 study including all three locational systems.

  • 3G iPhone w/ A-GPS ~ 8 meters
  • 3G iPhone w/ wifi ~ 74 meters
  • 3G iPhone w/ Cellular positioning ~ 600 meters

Numerous anecdotal studies indicate that the iPhone 4S/5 has become more accurate. In 2011 Dr. Zandbergen tested several Android smart phones. Here he found the accuracies to be slightly better than the 2009 study. They ranged from 5-8 meters. It is likely that the iPhone 4S/5 is within this range as well. It can also be assumed that iPads and other Android tablets will be comparable.

Other Options for Increasing Accuracy

There are several third party external GPS receivers that connect to the smart phone via Bluetooth. For example, the Dual 150S can be used to increase accuracy in more remote locations.  It can be worn like a wrist watch, placed on a car dash or strapped to a backpack. It will provide 2.5 meter accuracy and only costs $100.

Dual 150S External GPS Receiver

Dual 150S External GPS Receiver

Summary

If getting within 5-8 meters meets your data requirements smart phones and tablets are a great way to go. If you need greater accuracy you can combine an external Bluetooth GPS receiver with your device and get that accuracy down to the 2-3 meter range. If you require more accuracy than that you will need to invest in a mapping grade GPS receiver.

How Accurate is the GPS on my Smartphone? (Part 1)

Historically field data collection was a daunting task reserved for geographic information specialists (GIS) professionals, and the technical savvy crowd. This was largely due to the learning curve involved in operating mapping grade Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers. However, smart phones and tablets have changed that. They offer an amazing array of functionality in a portable, intuitive and ever more familiar interface. Think about all the technology packaged into one of these little devices:

  • GPS
  • Camera
  • Network connection (3G, 4G, WiFi…)
  • Email
  • Internet
  • Apps

They’re actually better than the Tricorders we used to see on StarTrek!  They have a slimmer profile, probably weigh a lot less, have touch screens, bigger displays and can be used with thousands of available apps.

iPhone vs.Tricorder

iPhone vs. Tricorder

One big question when considering smart phones or tablets for field data collection is, “How accurate are they?” A related question that must be answered is, “What kind of accuracy will meet the needs of my project?” You need to answer both of these questions to determine whether or not this technology will work for you. Usually survey grade GPS accuracies (sub meter or sub centimeter) aren’t necessary for public health mapping. Getting within 10 meters is more than adequate to map facility locations, patient addresses, potential sources of disease or wellness.

 How Does GPS Work?

The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) system. It utilizes a constellation of 24 satellites orbiting the earth at an altitude of 12,000 miles. GPS devices compute your position by determining the distance between the GPS receiver and a minimum of 4 GPS satellites. The satellites transmit radio signals to the GPS receivers, allowing the calculations to occur. Initially GPS was established as a military guidance system, and I doubt anyone foresaw the popular use it has today.

The iPhone has been equipped with an onboard GPS since the iPhone 3, and Android phones became GPS enabled at about the same time. Typically people use GPS to find restaurants and street directions. However, there’s no reason these same devices can’t be used for public health data collection!

More About Smart Phone Locational Services 

Smart phones in fact use more than GPS to locate you. They employ a hybrid locational system combining three separate technologies:

  1. Assisted GPS (A-GPS)
  2. WiFi positioning
  3. Cellular network positioning.

These three technologies are used in combination as they are available. A-GPS is the most accurate of the three, and cellular positioning the least accurate. The figure below shows an example of the accuracy of each of these locational services.

Accuracy of iPhone Locations

Zandbergen, P. A. (2009). Accuracy of iphone locations: A comparison of a) assisted gps, b) wifi and c) cellular positioning. Transactions in GIS, 13, 5–25.

GPS Accuracy

There are a number of factors that affect accuracy no matter what GPS receiver is being used. The GPS radio signals encounter differing conditions while travelling through the atmosphere, causing signal delays, and therefore affecting accuracy. The geometry of the satellites being used will also vary. The GPS will have a wider array of satellites to choose from if you’re out in the middle of a big field, versus being on 6th Avenue in Manhattan. You will get better positions if the satellites you’re locked onto aren’t clustered in one part of the sky. Therefore the more sky view you have, the more accurate your GPS will be. In addition to blocking your view of the sky, urban canyons can also cause multipath effects, where the GPS signal bounces off of buildings or other objects reducing accuracy.

In part 2, I’ll discuss each of the three pieces of the hybrid locational system individually, and discuss exactly what kind of accuracy you can expect to achieve.