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Geospatial technology, as we know today, has evolved from many different sources. Surveying is the core activity in geospatial data acquisition, which has been augmented by many new technologies as they have evolved. Simple levels have given way to the odolites to EDMs and Total Stations to Differential GPS. Geographical Information Systems, GIS, grew out of the efforts of the Harvard Laboratory for Computer Graphics which sought to apply digital techniques to the analogue art of cartography. Initially, the efforts were to just automate cartography, but soon, it became apparent that a digital map and database make a versatile combination for city planning, and thus was born Automated Mapping and Facilities Management or AM/ FM. Landscape architects moved this a step forward and added analytics to find spatial patterns, bringing GIS to life.
The addition of analytical capability The addition of analytical capability took GIS to a new level where it could be used in many fields from simple mapping and decision support systems to modelling and prediction. In this journey, GIS integrated with many systems, such as statistics, remotely sensed data, GPS location data, 3D data from stereoscopic imagery and LiDAR point clouds. Today, any GIS worth its salt must seamlessly use data from a wide variety of sources and provide analytical tools which can make best use of such data, and derive meaningful spatial patterns to aid decision makers and planners. Standards and interoperability considerations have helped to provide strength to integration of data sources and services. This is not only the biggest opportunity for geospatial systems, but also, its biggest threat.
A versatile GIS can be used not only in surveying and mapping, but also in many fields, as diverse as anthropology, business, climate change, finance and political science to name a few. If there is a spatial pattern, then it is amenable to GIS analysis. Integration with the Web has made GIS accessible to the common person. One of the new application areas is the use of GIS to harvest information from social media in order to analyse the human situation in events such as epidemics, disasters and other major events that impact communities and nations.
Challenges and more
The main weakness is the silos that each technology seems to operate in. For long, remote sensing scientists considered GIS to be ‘something else’. Only in 2014 did the International Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing recognise ‘Spatial Information Science’ as worthy of a Commission! Please note the marked avoidance of terms like GIS or geospatial. Surveyors swore by aerial photography for stereo imaging and consigned satellite stereoscopy to small-scale mapping. These silos become more pronounced when one leaves the traditional arena of mapping. For example, Business Intelligence (BI) may use maps, but does not consider it to be a geospatial application. The matter is not helped by geospatial professionals themselves who tend to think in terms of geospatial and domains such as agriculture, defence, etc., rather than a converged solution for an application like infrastructure planning or smart cities. For example, there is much talk about e-Governance and g-Governance where the ‘e’ prefix indicates the use of IT and ‘g’ indicates the use of geospatial technology. In reality, these prefixes draw attention away from the main task of governance and focus on the enabling technologies. Those on whom the task of governance falls, tend to consider them as external impositions rather than the facilitating technologies that they really are, thereby losing out on the advantages to be gained.
Herein lies the opportunity. The Smartphone is perhaps the best example of the kind of opportunities that exist, some apparent, some dormant and many undiscovered. Using a Smartphone, a person can navigate to a point of interest using a digital map and GPS, take a picture, geotag it and share it with friends and perhaps even link it to the digital map for public viewing. The Smartphone is not called a GIS phone or a GPS phone, though it uses GIS and GPS for navigation and geotagging. It is called ‘smart’ because it adds on features and widens the range of communications possibilities from just a voice call, which is what a phone is supposed to do, to a multimedia message while using GIS and GPS as facilitating technologies for information location, acquisition and dissemination. A Smartphone is the epitome of Information and Communications Technologies in action as an integrated service. The ‘I’ in ICT stands for multimedia information encompassing voice, text, image and spatial data.
Anne Kemp in her article on ‘Geospatial and BIM’, (Geospatial World, February 2015) puts it neatly when she writes, “The convergence of the various methodologies and technologies for managing data, taking the best of each, and boldly ditching the worst or superfluous of the rest, must surely be for the common good of developing and managing a better planet. So, let’s put aside the hang-ups of what is and is not GIS and BIM, and discover what really deserves our focus”.
What really deserves our focus are end goals like smart cities, sustainable development, climate change management, to name a few, which ultimately have a positive impact on human existence. Some domains are already picking up convergence of technologies; for example GIS and SCADA for better power distribution management; BIM and GIS for better decisions in infrastructure management; and BI and GIS for business efficiency. This is not the end. Any and every domain can benefit, provided we leave our silos and start thinking out-of-the-box.
Channelising the opportunities
Since we have covered strengths, weaknesses and opportunities, let me conclude with threats. Apart from the silos, the biggest threat is slow and restrictive regulatory environment. There are regulations that pose challenges to the applications of technology, which can upset the best of applications. UAVs are being used to survey the earthquake-hit areas of Nepal where access is difficult at normal times and has become well nigh impossible with landslides.
Yet, UAV usage is not allowed in most countries in the light of perceived dangers to aviation, secrecy and privacy. The rapid growth of technology has outpaced regulations and this sometimes restricts meaningful applications.
Given the level of integration achieved within the geospatial ecosystem and the convergence with many applications, geospatial systems should become a major component of the Internet of Things (IOT). Let it remain IOT and not g-IOT.