A ‘New Geospatial Modality’

A ‘New Geospatial Modality’


The definition of the geospatial industry is changing, rather, evolving at a fast pace. I appreciate your views on the same.

Jack Dangermond
Jack Dangermond
President, Esri

The definition of the geospatial industry is changing, rather, evolving at a fast pace. I appreciate your views on the same.
Geospatial technology is indeed evolving rapidly; opening up new opportunities, new applications and new ways of using geographic information in society. A ‘new modality’ is emerging that uses everything we do now but in a new context. This is similar to what occurred in the motion picture industry when moving picture technology was first invented. Initially people filmed live stage performances and disseminated them widely. After a while, people realised that a lot more could be done and a new modality emerged, giving birth to movies as we now know them. When maps were first automated using CAD systems, people digitised maps, changed their scales and disseminated them digitally. This was useful but limited. Digital maps as electronic drawings gave way to the GIS platform.

This introduced spatial analysis and generation of multiple map products from a transactionally maintained database. The GIS represented a new modality, a whole new approach for the application of geographic knowledge in applications.

We are now at a stage where we are again seeing a major shift in many aspects of the geospatial world. Take for example measurement. In the beginning, we digitised and scanned maps. Later, digital imagery was used to extend map information. Now we are beginning to take full motion video and integrating with our GIS databases directly. GIS is integrating real time measurements, such as traffic, weather, earthquakes and a plethora of dynamic measurements.Another shift is to server GIS and the use of Web as a platform. We are seeing distributed GIS services emerge as well as the vision of a “system of systems” being realised by various organisations with different mission responsibilities. This is not just about connecting enterprise data to the Web, it is actually the emergence of Web oriented systems that are designed to provide shared services and are maintained through transactions. This is a new emerging architecture that will support many of the visions of SDI that have been discussed for decades.

What are you engineering in your products to take advantage of these new trends?
The new GIS modality has many interesting characteristics; it’s distributed, yet can dynamically integrate data. It involves the Web, crowd sourcing (VGI), templates, wide scaled access to open data, server based architectures and easier-to-use user interfaces and applications. When we step back and look at what’s going on technically, there continues to be the traditional enterprise computing patterns involving the desktop, the server and the federated systems.

These patterns are used extensively in utilities, business, government and natural resources as well as the more pervasive platforms of cloud computing and device patterns (i.e. smartphones). We have recently launched ArcGIS 10.

This new technology integrates all five computing patterns into one system; a complete geospatial ecosystem for our users. So if you acquire a desktop license, you not only have the local capabilities but also tens of thousands of resources such as map services, data services, map content, search capabilities and discovery and mashup capabilities.

This means ArcGIS 10 extends from enterprise systems to pervasive computing. Our purpose in doing this is to open up traditional GIS systems, make their accessibility much easier and provide the knowledge and capabilities of these systems to users of the more pervasive world (browsers and mobile devices). This technology shift is creating the huge modality shift. GIS professionals are developing new, more pervasive applications and evolving the geospatial market towards ‘GIS for everyone’. What that means for a GIS professional is that their work done on a desktop or placed on a server becomes part of an ecosystem or infrastructure available to many. This architecture blends all five computing patterns and is totally open and interoperable with other IT systems.

In summary, we are in a time of very rapid change. We are still making maps and doing analysis on the desktop, and at the same time GIS is moving to a new level with a platform that is allowing the realisation of SDI visions.

“GIS for billion people”
Today, GIS is being deployed on a new platform _ the Web and cloud computing-and we all are in the early stages of adjusting to it. The characteristics of this environment are easy-to-use technology, more pervasive access, and the ability to mashup or integrate distributed knowledge. This means that access to geospatial knowledge will grow exponentially. Our existing users are gradually adopting this new paradigm and integrating this platform with their traditional workflows. So, in addition to running their enterprises, they are putting up public services and applications that can be accessed by anyone. This will ultimately result in a geospatial platform that could potentially reach billions of people.

Over the last few decades, widespread adoption of GIS has caused a change in thinking. People can look at overlays of maps, see new relationships, see different kinds of phenomena, and it creates a new understanding. Up until recently this has largely taken place in specialised communities, or with professionals using specific applications. The next step in GIS evolution means that everyone will have access to the idea of map overlays and spatial analysis. While traditional GIS has brought greater understanding within organisations, this next step will mean greater understanding within society at large.

It also means greater collaboration and communication across organisations. Esri is one participant in this movement and while we are dominant significant player in terms of research and advancement of the platform, there is an enormous ecosystem of other players participating. I am personally very appreciative of the opportunity to participate and continue playing a part in making all of this happen.

A significant number of mergers and acquisitions have taken place in the past five years in geospatial industry, both of large and smaller companies. Many claim it as a process of consolidation. How do you perceive this?
This is always going on in most industries. Esri’s business strategy is to focus on evolving a well designed and engineered system rather than making acquisitions to buy market share. We think this is better for our users and creates a more stable organisation for our users and employees. Our approach also involves partnering with other organisations to create a broad ecosystem of integrated geospatial technologies and applications. Esri has occasionally acquired technology companies that made our overall system better or helped our users but we remain focussed on developing a simple integrated geospatial platform that’s open, interoperable and standards based.

Acquisition of Intergraph by Hexagon has definitely influenced the ecosystem of the geospatial industry and has affected in some form or other many geospatial companies. It has enabled Hexagon to acquire technology in almost all segments including GIS, GNSS, imaging, software, hardware and so on. There is a strong feeling about the emergence of geospatial camps in the industry. How do you view this new equilibrium?
I don’t like the culture and implications of ‘camps.’ I do know that technology continues to evolve rapidly and with this evolution comes changes in business alliances and more importantly end user capabilities. What has kept Esri so healthy over the decades is our focus on our customers’ needs and make a large ongoing commitment to investment in successful innovation. Also, we work hard on maintaining an open policy on business partnerships. While the geospatial industry continues to be competitive, these days we see less competition in some areas and more cooperation based on a maturity in the knowledge of what each of the vendors does best. Interoperability standards have helped in this regard. Vendors have been trending toward more specialisation and selling into the areas that they do best in.

In technology business, there are three kinds of technology companies: 1) core technology like Intel and traditional DBMS companies; 2) solutions business and; 3) system integration. In geospatial areas these three types can be seen in both software and data. Organisations like Digital- Globe and GeoEye focus primarily on core data leaving solutions business to their partners. In GIS, Esri has focussed on core technology. Our partners, like Telvent or Telcordia, focus on utility applications.

Esri’s business is to provide platform technologies. Our business success is based on the fact that we do this very well and have strong developer oriented platforms and an open and collaborative business partner programme that helps our partners be successful.

GIS has moved beyond traditional boundaries and so has the focus and approach of GIS companies. Bentley, Autodesk and MapInfo, which were very much in the GIS space a decade ago, now position themselves as infrastructure, architecture and business intelligence solution companies respectively. How do you look at these developments and in your opinion what is the core value and utility of GIS in coming times? What would be its peripheral environment?
We remain focussed on building enabling platform technology for enterprise and the pervasive geospatial market is our core business. Many of our traditional competitors have moved into niche markets with more of a solution focus. As a result, we see less competition in the geospatial platform business and more partnerships by large software companies like IBM and Microsoft. Our partners in selected vertical markets see competition with some of these traditional GIS companies.

The improvements in interoperability between systems have had a huge benefit for end users. For example, GIS is increasingly being integrated with CAD technology around specific workflows. ArcGIS for AutoCAD has made the Auto- CAD desktop a powerful client for the ArcGIS Server and as a result integrated workflows within many of our clients. In other cases, shifts in technology have changed the market. For example, with the new support for 3D data models and analytic tools, the building management industry has embraced GIS for new applications like facility management and energy optimization in smart buildings. Our users are basically extending their GIS’s into campuses and buildings. With respect to geospatial enabling of business intelligence, we are seeing that happen in core companies like IBM, Microsoft, SAP and Oracle. All four of them have the vision of geospatial enablement of simple business intelligence applications using maps as a “report.” This market is small but with the advent of consumer Web mapping, there is greater awareness and people are demanding to see their data visualised in this way. This is a good idea and our server technology is now regularly being integrated with systems such as SharePoint, Cognos, and Business Objects in a seamless way.

GEODESIGN: Designing geographies for better decision making
The concept of GeoDesign started my career many years ago. The concept was actually pioneered by my professor, Carl Steinitz at Harvard University, who will soon publish a definitive text on the field. GeoDesign uses GIS as a platform for designing geographies at multiple scales. Specifically, the scientific information that GIS users collect and process is used to guide them in designing things and quickly evaluate the consequences of alternative designs. This supports one of the basic tenets of GIS: better decision making. I suppose GeoDesign concepts have been part of GIS workflows indirectly in many agencies for decades. From the dawn of GIS technology, people have used it in a decision support role. But up until recently, GIS has not been so well connected. As an example of a GeoDesign problem, in the US, there are election districts, the territories of which change every ten years. The boundaries are redesigned by politicians or lawyers. This is an interesting process because by changing the boundaries in various ways one could increase the probability of winning the election. People want to know the implications of various changes in the boundaries. A new Web application does this. GeoDesign uses GIS layers to guide design; basic map or analytic models and interactive tools to design alternative plans. While GeoDesign can help us to design fair and equitable election districts, the same process can be used in the designing of land use plans, siting of retail stores in a region, highway plans or transmission plans-GeoDesign gives us a scientific framework for evaluating the alternatives and selecting the best one. So, GeoDesign is an old idea. But it is also a new idea considering nature or considering society as part of the process for creating the future. GeoDesign is rather fundamental and you can think of it at the engineering level like designing a new road, at town level like modifying it in a decision support role. But up until recently, GIS has not been so well connected. GeoDesign is a combination of process, technology, and methodology which allows us to evaluate quickly the consequences of alternatives.

Crowdsourcing is another buzz word at the moment and presumably this is a pre-requisite for ‘GIS for Billion People’. What new direction is crowdsourcing taking worldwide?
First, crowdsourcing is an interesting concept that has been particularly successful with GIS on the Web. One of the first really successful crowdsourced maps was Open Street Map (OSM). The concept OSM used was to develop a well organised classification system of streets (data model) that allowed crowdsourced observation and easy data entry. Esri adopted this concept of building an ontology on a server and built it into ArcGIS 10 so that users could set up their own map layer or feature class in the database and through Web editing tools, easily collect observation data using crowdsourcing.

This is a significant step because it means that a COTS product could be used to organise a database on the server and any organisation could collect VGI observational data and use it immediately. This has been a key for our users who desired to do citizen science and crowdsourcing of citizens. The bottom line here is that in order to be useful, VGI data needs to be collected in a structured manner so that it can be properly manipulated and analyzed. GIS users are now learning how to leverage this. So it’s not just a new kind of data source for them to integrate, it’s also a new set of methods for them to use.

Another kind of crowdsourcing which is even more exciting to me is crowdsourcing from authoritative sources. Last year, we started the ‘Community Topographic Base Map’. This is a template that users in various agencies around the world download, pour their data into and upload into ArcGIS Online. Our template involves 20 different scales of a topographic map and has been designed for use in a GIS system. The map is a cache and has continuous dynamic qualities. It is a beautiful map and more than 500 organisations have contributed to this system. We are currently making more than 12 million maps a day on this system after only a few months. I see this “community” approach as one way that SDI will be realised.

Esri is as strong as ever in the GIS market space and is becoming a de-facto standard in GIS. This is great news, but it also requires a significant amount of localisation of Esri’s capabilities. How do you foresee providing customer support and fulfilling local needs in times to come?
In ArcGIS 10, we decided to change our approach towards localisation with respect to language. So, in addition to English, ArcGIS now ships in French, Spanish, German, Chinese and Japanese. We will expand this to include other languages this year. Within our organisation we have an initiative called ‘One Esri’, to consistently spread business practices and user support globally. For many of our distributors, it is like opening the door and walking straight into Esri headquarters in Redlands, California. That is the level of service and quality in support and maintenance our users want everywhere. We are now working with our distributors to implement the same business practices and customer support, training and technical support. Technology and globalisation are helping us support our users and help grow our business partners so they have the same capabilities globally.

In the given economic scenario, we see a significant shift in focus to emerging economies. What are the priority areas for Esri in this new economic world order?
Our basic philosophy is to follow what users want us to do. Today, the North American market continues to be strong for us. While there is certainly less money in government, our users continue to deliver efficiency and better decision making to their organisations. The result is that GIS is seen as important even in difficult economic times. Enterprise licensing has allowed our users to navigate around and be creative in delivering significant value to their organisations.

Outside of North America, the Middle East, China, and Russia are investing heavily and growing enormously. Latin America (especially Columbia, Peru, Brazil, and Chile) is certainly another growth market. There are, of course, changes in the market place from year to year but frankly, GIS is either stable or growing all over the world.

What are the four major verticals for the geospatial industry?
The utilities segment continues to be a growth area globally. We are seeing both new utilities’ growth and continued rollover of competitive technologies into our platform. The government sector, both at the local and national levels, continues to grow. The military and security market is growing and we also see natural resources, especially in mining, oil and gas and forestry, growing.

What I am personally interested in is the growing interest in open data policies and open government. It is an interesting area for new applications of geographic information. I also continue to be interested in education, growing the next generation of professionals. The last area of personal interest for me is our NGO-NPO programme. Last year we introduced a new programme which provides nearly free software to NGOs. Thousands of organisations have already used this. For a small fee NGOs can get a free copy of ArcInfo and all of its extensions, downloaded and delivered on his/her desktop in any country. Likewise, organisations can get a full ArcGIS enterprise server license. Our programme goes hand-in-glove with the growing open data policies of governments around the world and delivers many benefits.

You have been focussing a lot on India and your recent efforts have brought tremendous movement in the thinking of political and administrative leadership in India. Would you please share your vision for India?
Senior leadership interest is a growing trend around the world. My sense is that India is very much embracing GIS as a societal platform. This is also being done in many countries including China, Indonesia, Abu Dhabi, and others. Even the United States is embracing GIS at senior government levels.

GIS is moving from simple mission to being seen as important technology infrastructure for governing. Basically a movement is afoot at the executive level in governments and corporations that GIS matters.

In India, when I met with many senior leaders, I found a broad understanding of the power of GIS and how it could help them govern. Geospatial technology has an opportunity in India to deal with the real issues of water, food, environment, urbanisation, transportation, and communication in a holistic manner. This could empower and inspire so many things; increase collaboration, better communication and improved decision making across government and society. This could happen with some of the leadership I met. They have the passion to drive it and are willing to take risks to make it happen. This will make India a better place.