Home Articles Geospatial industry: Here today, world tomorrow

Geospatial industry: Here today, world tomorrow

Sanjay Kumar
CEO, Geospatial Media

From being a highly specialised scientific endeavour, geospatial industry has evolved and grown significantly over the past five decades to become a full fledged specialised industry. Today, it is on its way to become part of a larger consumer industry. This transformation has been made possible by the vision, competence, dedication and commitment of many professionals, programmes, institutions, associations, companies and above all geospatial thought leaders who have provided direction to this industry. This article traces the journey of geospatial industry so far and attempts to draw a roadmap ahead for the same.

Looking at the evolution of geospatial technology over the past 50 years, it is evident that geospatial industry of today is the coming together of different streams with a common thread known as ‘map’ at its core. Technological developments in acquisition, management, integration, analysis and display of geographic information have been instrumental in defining the composition, characteristics and direction of geospatial industry over these many years. Here is an attempt to outline some of the milestones in the evolution of geospatial industry.


Early decades
One may trace the origins of geospatial industry to early 1960s, a decade which witnessed a few initiatives which truly brought this technology out of the confined walls of defence and research laboratories. The decade witnessed efforts by public works and engineering industries to correlate maps and engineering and architecture drawings. As Prof Arup Dasgupta, Managing Editor, Geospatial World explains, “GIS began as an effort to automate maps and in particular manage urban assets and facilities. CAD was being used by engineers and cartographers who realised that the point, lines and polygons of engineering drawings could easily be used to create maps.” Supporting this argument Bob Samborski, Executive Director, GITA, considers ‘Cheyenne Project’ a major milestone for geospatial industry, which was initiated in 1960s and culminated in 1968 by then Public Service of Colorado. In joint undertaking with IBM, a pilot project to use computers to generate maps for siting landfils was successfully concluded. This led to a variety of start-up consultancies for implementing Automated Mapping/Facilities Management. However, parallel initiatives in different government departments making use of GIS technology for land administration and natural resources were also on. Late 1960s saw the emergence of Esri and Intergraph.

In 1970s, once the relativity and connectivity of geographic information was established with natural resources and AM/FM, it became common to seek more geographic data, which was limited in terms of availability and accuracy. At this point, developments in space technology came in handy. Following the launch of Sputnik in 1950s, United Sates launched the first successful spy satellite into space in 1960s. 1980s saw the launch of a series of civilian satellites led by SPOT satellite of France, a trend which was followed by many more including the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). Arup Dasgupta opines, “Remote sensing made the job of spatial data acquisition much simpler. Analysis of remotely sensed data using computers gave rise to image processing and soon this extended to digital photogrammetry. Space technology also enabled GNSS technology, which turned out to be a fantastic tool to a surveyor’s kit.”

Niche Is In
The decade of 1990s can be considered as the period that provided tremendous impetus to geospatial industry. Cold War came to an end in 1990 and this came as great news for those waiting for the opening up of space and mapping technologies in civilian sectors. US President Bill Clinton’s announcement to remove selective availability and allow full access to GPS brought a paradigm shift. Commercialisation of space technology with the grant of first commercial license to DigitalGlobe in 1993 paved the way for making highly restricted satellite images available widely. Next, with the opening up of Internet, access and availability of geospatial information became a reality for common man, which resulted in many more private companies joining. MapInfo, Bentley, Autodesk, GE Smallworld emerged as strong GIS software companies providing much needed alternatives and innovation. Competition got tougher. Appreciating this, Jack Dangermond, President, Esri, says, “We kept our focus on developing enabling platforms and continued to build strong core GIS technology platforms. It encouraged our partner network to develop solutions for different domains.”

Unparalleled strength and capabilities of Esri in platform technology supported with wide range of partner network having requisite skill sets for building solutions, made new companies identify niche areas and develop their competencies to survive. Location intelligence; architecture; engineering and infrastructure were promoted by MapInfo, Autodesk and Bentley respectively and they began to associate themselves with these mainstream industry domains. Such niche approach not only provided business opportunities for these companies but also created new avenues for geospatial industry.

Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC), founded in mid 1990s by David Schell, was a very timely step towards developing interoperability and standards between various technology products and also possible integration of data from different sources. OGC, which had to go through tremendous resistance in its earlier days proved to be a very relevant initiative. It has not only been able to lay down the foundation stone for an open technology environment but also kept on developing standards and interoperability protocols to facilitate data and technology integrations.

Data – Public Good
Another significant development during the 1990s was recognition of geographic data as a public commodity. Penetration of Internet and availability of online maps for governance and business applications created a huge demand for geographic data. Dr Vanessa Lawrence CB, Director General and Chief Executive, Ordnance Survey, UK says, “One of the biggest developments for geospatial industry has been the realisation of the importance of geoinformation by businesses and governments across the globe. Today, we see geoinformation being used across the private and public sector to drive efficiencies and underpin decision making.” This led to the emergence of another set of companies specialising in producing geographic data and imagery products with added intelligent components designed for specific applications. MapQuest, with its products having geographic data at their core, became a household name. Geographic data companies like Tele Atlas and NAVTEQ emerged as new contenders. Removal of selective availability by US government largely shaped the surveying and positioning industry. Bryn Fosburgh, Sector President-Engineering and Construction/Emerging Markets-Trimble says, “Development of RTK and VRS technologies have enabled GNSS to become a utility. One of the most notable developments, but perhaps one that is somewhat overlooked, is the ongoing deployment of RTK infrastructure networks worldwide to augment GNSS.”

The first decade of the millennium brought a sea change in the production and availability of geographic data. Submeter resolution imagery being produced by various commercial satellites of GeoEye and DigitalGlobe attracted large IT companies like Yahoo, Google and Microsoft to geospatial industry. Google Earth gave a new dimension to geographic industry and made it overwhelmingly popular. According to Prof VS Ramamurthy, Director-National Institute of Advanced Studies, India, “Every industry goes through a process of science, technology and infrastructure and this process is constantly evolving.” Last decade saw geospatial industry become an infrastructure in itself – a term which refers to geographic data as a public utility and part of a common man’s life. Scientific investigations of the 1950s and 60s resulted in technology developments in 1970s and 1980s, which further went through a process of public scrutiny and policy reforms in 1990s and ultimately culminated in making itself an infrastructure in the 21st century. Let us have a look at some of the major stakeholders of geospatial industry who made their own ‘big’ and ‘small’ contribution.

GIS industry
One of the critical pre-requisite for commercialisation of this technology was to attract and motivate potential users and create momentum. Esri has recognised this fact right from its inception and focussed on developing GIS as a tool and not an end in itself, which allowed it to involve and engage users to do the rest of application development, giving users a sense of ownership.

David Sonnen, President & Founder, Integrated Spatial Solutions opines that Esri has been primarily a tool vendor enabling a vibrant community of users and developers which generated a significant number of innovations. Echoing similar sentiment Chuck Killpack, Editor-North America, Geospatial World adds, “GIS market would not be what it is today if Esri had not kept its focus on building GIS tools.” In fact, the private ownership of Esri and the dedication of Jack Dangermond could well be perceived as the success mantras for Esri. Cindi Salas, Director- Land and Field Surveys, CenterPoint Energy, one of the largest users of Esri technology says, “Esri’s contribution to geospatial industry is huge, largely because of their focus and solutions across all industry verticals.”

Intergraph was incorporated just after Esri in 1970 with a different market focus. Having CAD lineage and focus on defence requirements for high powered geospatial visualisation, Intergraph created a vast technology base for efficient data capture, maintenance, analysis and map production. According to Preetha Pulusani, Chairman and CEO at DeepTarget Inc., “Intergraph expanded into a variety of industries, most notably utilities, communications, transportation, public safety, defence and national mapping.” Recognising the contribution of Intergraph, Chuck Killpack argues, “Intergraph’s initial leadership into utility and military government markets was key to the growth all GIS companies are experiencing in those markets today.” However, Intergraph also expanded its technology portfolio with associated products in photogrammetry, imaging, scanning, map production among others, which enabled integration of the same and move towards solution- centric approach.

Initial successful implementations created a positive environment about this technology which attracted more innovators and technology leaders, who translated their belief into action but from a slightly different and niche perspective. Says Arup Dasgupta, “Niche players are important in any industry. A one-size-fits-all philosophy may look good in the beginning but as the technology grows, differentiation has to set in. Applications are the key and applications have to be different for different requirements.” Bentley, Autodesk, MapInfo and GE Smallworld entered GIS industry and each of these played a role in extending GIS towards specific markets and domains. In early 1990s, Autodesk found that quite a significant number of AutoCAD licenses were being used for mapping, making them enhance their support for geographic coordinate systems and create new geospatial capabilities across broad design product lines. Bentley concentrated on extending GIS into engineering domain and even coined the phrase ‘geo-engineering’ which has brought in significant credentials for today’s infrastructure engineering and construction. MapInfo started as a desktop mapping tool and took on the business and consumer markets and provided spatial perspective to businesses and consumer industry. Widely known as a business geographics company, MapInfo’s business strategy evolved around banking, retail, insurance, logistics etc. Smallworld tackled the unique challenges of utilities and focussed on their market sphere in this segment. Applauding their contribution Chuck says, “Today, these companies are making significant contribution to GIS market. These companies spent many years building foundation for more general acceptance of GIS with focus on specific market segment.”

Surveying & Positioning
The story of surveying and positioning is not very different from that of GIS. Although surveying industry is much older than GIS, advancements in GIS had significant influence on surveying and positioning industry. Traditionally, Trimble and Leica Geosystems provided leadership to this industry and focussed exclusively on developing surveying tools for land surveyors and mapping professionals. Introduction of GPS on the one side and integration of GPS with GIS created many innovative products and applications for customers beyond traditional surveying community. As GIS kept penetrating engineering, design, infrastructure, utilities and business geographics, GNSSenabled positioning tools got integrated with GIS solutions and expanded its market base primarily in engineering and infrastructure development. Sokkia and Topcon also made their own contributions and brought in innovative products to develop and serve the niche markets like machine automation and machine control. The last decade has seen a revolution in positioning technology and its utility. It has become a part of mainstream infrastructure and engineering domain and today we see the major chunk of revenues of positioning companies arising out of non-traditional sectors like construction and housing; engineering and machine automation; agriculture and forestry. Land administration and surveying continue to grow as well.

Another significant dimension of positioning technology has been the emergence of location enabled industry. SiRF was the first company dedicated to bring GPS enabled location technology to mainstream consumers and has been the key developer of technology as well as a major force driving the ecosystem by overcoming the barriers to mass market deployment of location technology. As Kanwar Chadha, Founder of SiRF says, “Moving away from highly professional segment of positioning technology, SiRF focussed on optimising architectures for solving the problems that were preventing deployment of GPS in mass market consumer applications. Today, most of the consumer industry is driven by this business model where there are technology platform suppliers such as CSR/SiRF, device suppliers like Garmin, Nokia and Motorola and content/application platform suppliers like Google, Facebook, Navteq and Tele Atlas.”

Imaging industry
Initiatives of GIS and positioning technologies towards opening up multiple avenues and widening the user base for geospatial industry, has been very well supported by high resolution satellite imagery and advancements in photogrammetry and LiDAR technologies.

IKONOS satellite of GeoEye (earlier owned by Space Imaging) provided leadership role in delivering 1 metre resolution imagery which proved to be quite handy and useful for public at large in multiple ways and especially in defence, natural resource management and disaster management. Subsequent constellations of commercial satellites launched by DigitalGlobe, RapidEye and others further enhanced resolutions and capacities and today, this imagery is available online and offline to common public through Internet and PNDs.

Extending the discussion, Sridhara Murthi, Senior Expert, Office of Adviser to PM, Public Information Infrastructure and Innovations, Government of India says, “The use of remotely sensed imagery has increased the transparency and the general public are now able to influence or assess the actions of governments and governments at international level are guided by the information accessible at large.” Advancements in remote sensing and imaging technologies encouraged development of image processing tools which constantly got upgraded with launch of every new remote sensing satellite.

Erdas, PCI Geomatics and Intergraph developed tools for this very specialized component of geospatial industry. In late 1990s, following the technology integration path of growth, Erdas and PCI Geomatics began building on GIS tools as part of their existing image processing capabilities.

The above narrative makes one feel that geospatial technology has matured as an industry and the same has become an infrastructure and public utility for economy and society at large. It would be quite interesting to see how and what will drive this industry in the next few years. We, at Geospatial World, solicited views from several geospatial leaders to map out few possibilities and directions for this industry. Here is an attempt to weave those threads and illustrate likely business drivers of various segments of geospatial industry:

Geographic information
GIS would remain at the core and shall be the prime driver of geospatial industry. Associated technologies would largely benefit from the increasing size of geospatial industry. All kinds of geographic data including topographic, navigation, satellite imagery products, 3D and 4D modelling will continue to be in demand. Charles Foundyller, CEO of Daratech believes that “GIS data is the fastest growing geospatial business line today. GIS data has grown at a compound annual rate of 15.5% for the last eight years – about twice the rate of growth for software and services. As more location-related data becomes available, the use and scope of geospatial analyses is sure to grow, greatly increasing the economic benefits such analyses brings. It is most likely that both public awareness of geospatial technologies and their contribution to the world economy will increase, dramatically as more geo-related data comes online.”

At the moment, geographic data has commoditised itself in many parts of the world and developed countries have gone to the level of creating 3D models of cities and use these datasets effectively. At the same time, we have countries in Asia, Africa, Middle East and Latin America which are yet to have geospatial datasets at 1:25,000 scale, leave alone 3D models. More than 2/3rds of world population is still deprived of the power of geospatial information. Brian Bullock, Chairman, Intermap Technologies says, “If you look at geoinformation industry a decade ago, it was thought to be about $ 5 bn worldwide with about $ 2 bn in systems and software and $ 3 bn in data and services. But today, the number of users surely passed 100 million and the amount of money moving in the market is now nearing $ 40 bn”. He further argues that “growth in next decade requires the introduction of nationwide – indeed continent wide data with much higher geospatial accuracy.” Another important aspect of data business is companies focussing on specific vertical industries facilitating the characteristics of data structure, data models and integration with mainframe data structure of their respective domains.

Potential Applications
There has been tremendous democratisation of geospatial data and it is seen not only as a decision making tool but also as a tool for increasing efficiency and productivity, ultimately bringing profitability to organisations. Abundant data and advanced tools are enabling applications and services across different user domains. Arup Dasgupta believes, “As geospatial industry moves away from boxes to services, applications will be the key driver of geospatial industry.” An interesting view shared by end user organisation is that problem solving ability of GIS would be key driver of geospatial industry in times to come. Cindi Salas says, “Government, utilities and commercial businesses handle several challenges and they too are key business drivers as nearly every problem has some component of location.” Sharing similar views, another end user professional Matthew Thomas, Senior GIS Specialist, Spectra Energy opines, “Most native business drivers within GI industry are ‘need’ and ‘availability’. Fortunately for GIS, need grows exponentially. Companies and individuals are learning more and more about their surroundings and the interplay of those surroundings with their particular assets.” Let us have a look the major application industries which are likely to drive the geospatial industry.

Defence and Security: Defence and security has been and shall continue to be the primary driver of geospatial industry, especially in the United States. But its market size is growing significantly in emerging economies as well, pushing demand for GIS and high resolution satellite data. According to Adam Keith, Director-Earth Observation, EuroConsult, “Presently, 65% of 1.1 billion commercial data is procured for defence customers. This is especially true for US commercial operators DigitalGlobe and GeoEye which have bagged a 7.3 billion US$ deal for the next one decade.” Many countries are working on setting up defence geospatial data infrastructure which may allow seamless integration of geospatial data with other associated datasets and ensure selective and timely delivery of the same to its soldiers. Technology developments and upgradation of defence systems is providing opportunity for geospatial industry to find its own due by being a part of the C4ISR initiative.

Engineering and Infrastructure: Engineering and infrastructure industry offers a promising business opportunity to geospatial industry. Geo-enabled engineering which integrates CAD systems to geospatial data shall be the key for engineering and infrastructure industry. Charles Foundyller says, “CAD systems are typically not designed to interoperate with GI systems. But this is changing and future CAD systems will become far more closely linked, so that engineers and architects will be able to see their designs as virtual buildings a la Google Earth together with additional location specific information.” Engineering and infrastructure industry shall drive overall geospatial industry from data acquisition to data modelling to GI and positioning technologies. Discussing Bentley’s strategy, Greg Bentley says, “Without question, Bentley’s offerings in the GIS world align with the needs of the engineering community. Bentley’s strategy in terms of GIS technology has been and continues to be ‘advancing GIS for infrastructure’. Our goal is to present GIS technology seamlessly within engineering workflows and, indeed, within the graphical user interface of an engineering application.” Geodesign promoted by Esri has adopted a different but complementary approach towards design industry. Interestingly, satellite imagery and 3D data seem to have promising business opportunity in this segment. Matt O’Connell, Chief Executive Officer, GeoEye says, “One of the successful 3D products is the Airport Mapping Database (AMDB), which provides data that identifies, locates and measures features within an image.”

Positioning and surveying technology has the largest tangible stakes in engineering and infrastructure industry. Pursuing a solution approach, Trimble has acquired different technologies and integrated them to deliver a comprehensive solution to engineering and infrastructure projects. Sharing Trimble’s vision and business approach Bryn Fosburgh says, “Having entered in surveying industry as GPS solution in 1980s, Trimble has invested in 3D data acquisition and visualisation technologies, as these will be critical part of geospatial industry in the future offering solutions for interior modelling of buildings as well as to plan and execute construction projects using 3D models.”

Land Information and Real Estate: This has been a traditional market for geospatial industry and shall continue to be one of the major business drivers. Increasing population and urbanisation is putting tremendous pressure on land to be more scientifically demarcated and administered. As land market gets more organised, demand for large scale geo-referenced mapping of each and every parcel and associated attribute information is growing immensely. This is bringing back the focus on cadastral mapping and land title management at regular frequency. A large number of developing countries do not have adequate maps necessary for land administration and governments are under pressure to invest in high quality land maps. Fortunately, the popularity of Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth has enhanced the interest and willingness in real estate industry to use geospatial data for visualisation.

Municipal and Local Governance: World over, use of geospatial information for governance is gaining momentum. As most of the municipal services have spatial component, it is but obvious that democratisation of information technology will further drive geospatial business in local governance. As per an estimate, urban population would grow up to 50% in the next 20 years from its current share of 30% and continuous increase in overall population will bring in unimaginable challenges to local governance and municipalities. Geospatial is one of the possible tools which can help agencies deal with this forthcoming challenge.

Enterprise and Business Process: World economy is growing so is the size of enterprises offering products, solutions and services in almost every walk of human life. These enterprises have their own business processes and systems which require efficient management and qualitative administration. Geospatial information and tools have been quite handy and useful for the same and as economic reforms continue to improve business environment, deployment and utility of geospatial in business process would further strengthen the demand in this sector.

Precision Farming and Agriculture: Agriculture is emerging as one of major business drivers of geospatial industry. Ola Rollen, President, Hexagon AB informs, “Population is estimated to touch 10 billion in the next 30 years which means greater demand for food in general. On top of this, increasing number of middle class with better purchasing power will hike the demand for better quality of food, creating additional demand for agriculture and food processing industries. Hexagon looks at this as an opportunity to invest heavily in precision farming and is developing solutions to improve productivity.”

LBS and Consumer Applications: This segment shall be the driving force for democratisation of geospatial data and probably the largest single, but unaccounted and indirect, market segment for geospatial industry. Geospatial data lies at the core of these services but does not have any direct interface with users at all. Quoting IDC report David Sonnen says, “There will be over a billion apps available for mobile and desktop platforms and many of those will be available at low or no cost. Since all major application development platforms include location handling capabilities, we expect that geospatial capabilities will simply be part of the application mix.” This market shall be driven more by content and service providers such as Apple, Google, Facebook, Nokia, Verizon, AT&T. Kanwar feels that “Location industry is in a self driven mode with multiple monetisation models being deployed by above companies and convergence of tools like GPS, multiple GNSS systems, MEMS sensors and radio signals (WiFi, cellular etc) and connectivity platforms shall make location reliably available everywhere,” resulting in creating a big demand and boost to consumer applications including navigation, search, social networking, entertainment, games, targeted and behavioural advertising.

Utilities: Utilities including electricity, telecommunication, water oil and gas have been occupying central position in the application segment of geospatial industry for past few decades and it is likely to continue to be an important business driver for GI industry. This sector is highly likely to expand its scope of usage of geospatial tools and begin using satellite imagery as well. As per Cindi, “Utility industry has so far underutilised satellite imagery. But with the integration of imagery into GIS platforms by Esri and connecting dots of Web, mobile and mash ups of all kinds of data, it will drive utility industry. Bob Samborski firmly believes that utility industry’s demand for comprehensive solutions to complex organisational operational challenges will only continue.

Technology advancements
Technology development, especially integration and convergence, shall be a significant business driver for geospatial industry. Demand for increasing data accuracy and data quality is pushing the demand for advanced data acquisition and processing tools. Technology developers must stay ahead and provide tools – to collect and build smart content; to collate, integrate and manage content for building applications and solutions for different platforms for enterprise, Web and mobile. Currency of data is gaining importance with development of more dynamic applications. This is throwing up several challenges as well, according to Vanessa who says, “Real-time positioning will challenge the existing positional accuracy of legacy geoinformation collected over many years and data integration will become an ever-increasing challenge.”

Another important aspect is the integration of geospatial technology into many IT solutions. “GIS technology is utilising the main tools and techniques in the IT industry to add value and enhance related applications,” according to Super Wang, CEO, Super Geo. Elaborating on this, David Sonnen says, “In majority of cases, the user will simply need some geospatial elements within their broad IT environment. These users will simply pick up specific capabilities like imaging, 3D, spatial analytics and such will be dynamically integrated where and when they are needed.”

Many in the industry opine that 3D modelling and visualisation are the most logical next steps for GIS. Says Matthew Thomas , “Once the GIS industry gets there – efficiently and effectively – the depth of decision support can be truly realised. 3D referencing will allow for more targeted remediation of problems, more accurate consideration of risk and ‘as-is’ conditions, and more complete assessments to be made in almost any application of the technology.” One essential ingredient for technology advancements to be more productive is to have open and standard formats. Initially, open source was seen as a threat, but now it’s just part of the way IT markets work. Pointing out another technology driver, Matt O’Connell says, “Cloud computing is changing the way geospatial industry does business. The Cloud model is solving a number of problems, including global, secure distribution and high-end, on-demand processing.”

Geospatial technology was born as a reconnaissance tool for security forces in the 1960s. But today it has invaded the civilian space with a vast array of applications. It is set to become so pervasive to the extent of becoming ubiquitous. Cloud is the next big revolution and DaaS, SaaS, PaaS and IaaS will be the next focus for the industry. So far, most of the benefits of geospatial industry were enjoyed by professional users in terms of economic and efficiency gains. With pervasiveness and service-centric approach, we have started witnessing spatial data usage by consumers paving way for the next paradigm of information revolution.

The author is thankful to the following for their valuable inputs: Adam Keith, Arup Dasgupta, Bhanu Rekha, Bob Samborski, Brian Bullock, Bryn Fosburgh, Charles Foundyller, Cindi Salas, David Sonnen, Greg Bentley, Hrishikesh Samant, Jack Dangermond, Jill Smith, Kamal K Singh, Kanwar Chadha, Matt O’Connell, Ola Rollen, Preetha Pulusani, Sridhara Murthi, Super Wang, Matthew Thomas, Dr Vanessa Lawrence CB and Prof VS Ramamurthy.