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A cultural development called geospatial industry

I find it interesting that people still speak of the collection of technologies and data stores relating to spatial-temporal measurement and analysis as an “industry”. Because I have a deep interest in both language and mathematics, I am perhaps too rigorous a critic of the way certain words are defined, especially those summoned up by commercial researchers to characterise market phenomena, words which are often misleading and serve as licence for predictive studies that impose incongruent expectation on both technology professionals and business planners, and confuse investors.

I am hard pressed, for example, to know how to respond to questions regarding the future of the “geospatial industry”. The term “industry” doesn”t seem to fit, and easy definitions of “geospatial industry” slip through my fingers like mercury.

It used to be easy to talk about a measurable market for GIS software or spatial datasets and the limited number of companies and agencies that worked to create it. And it was easy to make presentations to that market about a future of interoperable software and data sharing — everyone who was considered visionary bought into the idea of larger markets and the development of future industry growth.

But now that interoperability is a reality and the information processing community in general is learning to assimilate spatial information and “spatial thinking”, things are becoming more complicated. Growth of markets for geospatial technology have not by any means maintained the coherence of original business plans.

Moreover, it seems clear that GIS is no longer a focal concept for the wave of interdisciplinary research and commercial programmes that have spawned our massive collection of imaging and sensor datasets. And both research and application development involving geospatial information is to a great extent underwritten by major investment in infrastructure design, and driven by social policy.

Indeed, a whole new set of actors have taken an interest in spatial information; not as participants in a traditionally defined geospatial market, but as institutions representing diverse industrial or societal domains that employ a variety of complex data and architectural models.

I think geospatial technology has actually become a property of information processing itself, flowing around domain after domain like oil in a huge machine, looking to each to be integral with the science and information models that drive it. It is not a single industry but a wave of cultural development that facilitates all, enabling as the invention of movable type or the telescope, and marking the beginning of an epoch of human discovery and rational thinking.

In addressing such a phenomenon, we have something larger to define than an “industry”. As we think about transitioning to this new epoch, new questions emerge and we sense that a future is taking shape in which many traditional terms don’t make sense, where both institutional and individual motivation in becoming more sophisticated is also more mysterious.

In the beginning, geospatial technology was the domain of specialists and the “buyin” required considerable investment of both intellectual and financial capital. Now geospatial information is our franchise, our right, and we know how to expect to use it. More importantly, we feel that we have a natural right to benefit from it — to have fun with it, to work with it, to improve our lives by using the powerful appliances and policies it has produced.

We need to ask then what sort of future is it we are addressing, and what we should expect to be the next evolution of markets and industry domains, and how in fact do we now define progress.

Manifestly, the greatest change that has taken place is that people in both public and private sectors, in all technology and industry domains, are beginning to understand the importance of “context” in space and time, and the commonality of space and time to traditional application markets. The need for interoperability and data sharing is now becoming subsumed in complex processing models that link diverse research disciplines, commercial application and operational strategies to address the requirements of broad social policy or largescale consumer requirements.

Industry lines are blurred not only for geospatial issues, but for all traditional markets. As demographics evolve in the modern world, so do technology markets merge, transform and redefine the “industry” terrain in which they operate. This is the terrain that I think of when I am asked to characterise the “geospatial industry” of the future, a terrain defined by our joint tenancy of the world’s “space” and journey through time, and the unity of the human enterprise.