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Geospatial Industry – On a positive pitch

Bhanu Rekha
Associate Editor
GIS Development Pvt. Ltd.
Email: [email protected]

United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait – commonly referred to as GCC countries, form the chunk of Middle East market for geospatial industry. Several companies which started in the 1990s as distributors of major companies evolved to provide consultancy and customised solutions in a decade. SpaceImaging Middle East, Vision Geoinformation solutions and GeoImage figure prominently on the list.

While GeoImage started as the distributor of PCI Geomatics, Definiens, SpaceEyes and SPOT imagery, Global Scan Technologies started with a ground receiving station for satellite imagery, Space Imaging Middle East distributed LandSat and IRS imagery and Pictometry Middle East has recently been rechristened as Vision Geoinformation Solutions.

Providing consultancy and a gamut of geospatial services and solutions, the industry in Middle East shared its views and experiences with GIS Development. Here’s what the industry has to say on various aspects.

Technology Uptake
The region has the second mover advantage in adopting and adapting to the right kind of technologies. With tried and tested technologies and applications on a platter, with mounting awareness and local competition, government departments and private enterprises are hand picking applications that suit their need best. “The level of acceptability of geospatial technologies is very high,” says Muhammed Al Aswad, Managing Director, Intergraph Middle East LLC. According to him, “this is because of the stability of governments and the availability of money. Organisations in the region take Europe for inspiration and emulate their examples. “

Analysing the psyche behind this, Hussain Harahshah, General Manager, Global Scan Technologies says, “People, especially in Arabian gulf area want us to prove that a particular device is really the latest one. They don’t accept the second one even though it can do the requisite work. This is the reason we choose either the latest or unique technology. We also need to be competitive in terms of price in this region.”

Differing from Harahshah’s view, Jehad Hijazi, Chairman and CEO, GeoImage says, “I feel the region here is not very mature. They prefer to invest in ready products like 3D maps whatever the technology used. They want end products not the means. High technology is still not much accepted by users here. Lack of market, lack of awareness may be the reasons.”

Discussing the acceptability levels of the latest technologies in the region, Mohamad El Kadi, Managing Director, Space Imaging Middle East says, “There are two levels of acceptability apparent. On the one hand, many organisations are actively incorporating new GIS technology into their everyday business applications. On the other, there are companies who are still questioning the place of GIS in their structure and only use geospatial solutions when a direct need arises. Although we lost some business to Google initially, the advent of applications like Google Earth has done a lot to build awareness of GIS amongst our client base. For example, real estate developers used to come and buy data from us to plan a new project. Now they go on Google or Microsoft to mark out their areas and take measurements. As they start working on the project, they are coming back to us because they need new imagery. This way, our client base is growing more sophisticated now. We are catering to these sophisticated people who are growing within their organisations to change it into a GIS-based one.”

Taking the discussion on the acceptability levels of geospatial technologies further, El Kadi says, “There are two parameters here. While one wants us to cater to their need, the other wants stability and support, which is why the market is sceptical to use open source solutions exclusively. So, we developed in-house solutions and capabilities to allow us to address their needs. This enabled us to diversify our offerings and introduce our clients to new GIS technologies, while offering them the comfort of local support.”

With unique products in his kitty, Pieter Franken, Sales Director, Vision Geoinformation solutions, feels his company’s uniqueness of providing oblique imagery and LiDAR has proved to be an advantage. “At the same time,” Pieter says, “having unique products means we need to educate the clients. It is a long term process. These products do not appear in regular tenders in the markets. So we have to create the need, educate the clients, show them how to use it, support them.”

Emerging Trends
Though one might feel global economic recession has been a dampener, the geospatial industry is upbeat over the potential of the market. The industry is divided on its view about the most potent vertical though.

Phillippe Akl, Sales and Marketing Manager, Positioning Division of Topcon says, “Traditionally, survey market is the biggest in the region. Now the trend is changing. At present, 70% of our revenues are coming from construction sector.

This does not mean that surveyors or surveying field does not play a role. In Middle East, we are still using surveying for construction activity unlike Europe.”

He feels that there is small confusion about the general trend – the type of equipment people are buying after the economic crisis. “I heard someone saying that people are shifting to cheaper brands and lower accuracy levels because of economic crisis. But my experience suggests otherwise. I am noticing that companies are trying to optimise their resources, invest in technologies that will increase their productivity while downsizing the resources. To achieve this, they are investing in high end technologies that will help them increase the productivity with less number of people.” This, Philippe feels, is leading to machine automation. “We are seeing a lot of reference station networks coming up for GPS. This will change the rules of the game in the GPS segment.”

Taking a different stance, Hussain Harahsh says, “We do face the effects of recession. People are not buying extensive technology easily. Many government entities in the region need applications. But this need is not immediate as much as the need for food.”

According to Muhammed Al Aswad, spatial data infrastructures are the buzz word. “At the global context, though Middle East is not spearheading this activity, there is considerable activity in this regard. The major bottlenecks for SDIs to take off in the region are use of different data formats and the predominant use of proprietary solutions. 10 years into the race, we may have to opt for open formats and have interoperability. It is time for the powers to be to do something in this direction. It is important that proper standards are adhered to.” Concurring with the idea, Pieter says, “With the creation of datasets, slowly market is evolving towards 3D. This has been forecast 6-7 years ago. But it is really taking off now.”

But according to El Kadi of Space Imaging ME, which provides high resolution imagery to a vast array of applications, infrastructure, utilities and public sector are on the growth curve. Demand for high resolution imagery is also on the up. Jehad Hijazi feels one of the major applications for high resolutions imagery is change detection. “There are huge investments happening for development in this region. Municipalities need to update their maps every few months. To achieve this efficiently in a cost effective way, availability of data quickly when it is needed is critical.”

Hijazi also lists environment and homeland security as emerging verticals for geospatial technologies. “I think more and more GIS applications for environment and homeland security will be developed. Security is now very critical as there is delicate situation politically.”

Data Availability
The most critical criterion for the development of geospatial industry is the availability of base data. Though different countries in the region have different norms vis-à-vis data, the overall picture is not very positive.

Hijazi of GeoImage opines that availability of data is not as much as it is needed by the geospatial users. In Saudi Arabia, imagery has to come through KACST. In UAE, there are no such restrictions. In Jordon, one has to go through the national mapping agency to buy imagery.

Concurring with this idea, Hussain Harahshah says, “I think there is not much data available. We discover there is missing data or there is no updation. Also, it is not easy to get data from government. Some times, data sharing between government agencies is also difficult.”

Voicing similar sentiments, Rohit Anand, Sales and Marketing Manager, Sokkia Middle East says, “Only a few countries in the MENA region have fairly developed geospatial data infrastructure for collection, planning and effective utilisation of data.”

Potential geographies
Economic recession not withstanding, countries in the region are investing in building infrastructure and other development sectors. Says Philippe, “UAE and in particular Dubai is on a halt but if you look at the larger picture, infrastructure is still a major segment, especially in Saudi Arabia. Saudi plans to invest 157 billion Saudi Riyals in the next 3-5 years in infrastructure. This is creating lot of opportunities,”

Identifying the potential markets for high-end technologies like pictometry and LiDAR, Pieter Franken says, “We are creating a very high resolution 3D model for the entire Abu Dhabi city. Once completed, it would be the biggest 3D model ever made in the Middle East.

So, in terms of market focus, we believe Abu Dhabi is very important for Vision Geoinfo. We believe Saudi Arabia is the most important market in the region. Qatar and Bahrain are important too. Unfortunately, in Dubai, there is lack of projects.”

The geospatial industry in the region is quite staggered at the moment. Industry players feel the void and the need to bring all private players under an umbrella organisation. Says Rohit Anand, “This will also help to establish some standards, evolve a code of conduct for the industry in the region.

The membership should be open to all government institutions, private companies, academic institutions, businesses and individuals related to the industry.”

With highly motivated decision makers who are providing able executive and political leadership, with significant number of trained professionals and consultants, with colleges and universities providing quality GIS education and training and above all with growing awareness about geospatial technologies in the region, the industry is finding a perceptible need and a proactive pitch for the growth of geospatial technologies in the Middle East region.

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