Geospatial Technology Enabling Workflows

Geospatial Technology Enabling Workflows


The progressively complex and accelerating pace of change in the geospatial industry offers exciting possibilities for meeting sophisticated demands from businesses, as geospatial information and technology become integral to workflows.

By Prof Arup Dasgupta,
Managing Editor

Workflows are the nerve networks of the geospatial ecosystem. They interconnect various components and initiate processes to enable smooth data flow from source through processing to delivery of the final actionable information. The components may, in fact, include several non-geospatial systems and processes as well because the actionable information is intended to deal with aspects of planning, management or monitoring of natural and manmade resources, which in turn impact people, flora and fauna through modifications of the geosphere, biosphere and atmosphere.

Geospatial workflows can be considered to be a series of processing steps. For example, a task like image classification would require the operator to load the image data, select region of interest, identify training sets and then select and run the classifier, create a confusion matrix and flag the accuracy and reliability of the result. An open source programme, Khoros, introduced a visual programming environment that could create such workflows on screen. This proved to be very popular and many commercial software also included such visual workflow programming environment. However, these are baby steps in terms of comprehensive geospatial workflows.

The challenge in developing geospatial workflows is to be able to use data and processes from different sources, typically in a SDI environment. While data standardisation is an accepted norm, process standardisation is not common. Figure 1 from the paper Qualifying geospatial workflow models for adaptive controlled validity and accuracy by Didier Leibovici, Gobe Hobona, Kristin Stock and Mike Jackson of the Centre for Geospatial Sciences, University of Nottingham, illustrates a typical workflow for a ground condition forecast in the framework of the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), which not only shares data but also processes it in a heterogeneous environment. The challenge here is to be able to establish the accuracy and reliability of the results based on the quality of the data and reliability of the processes.

Another example is the workflow of the National Land Records Modernisation Programme (NLRMP) in India as implemented by the State of Gujarat as per the NLRMP guidelines. This is a four phase process shown in Figure 2 .

The example illustrates the combination of legacy data, fresh geospatial data acquisition using modern survey techniques and processes for validating the new data against legacy records, harmonising legacy and new data, mapping, verification and creation of standardised reports and other outputs. This also includes government-to-government and government-to-citizen management processes and integration of the total system in a multi-department environment.

Technology landscape
There are two approaches to the creation of workflows. A single software stack can be used or it could be a mix and match approach using the best fit for purpose packages. Bill Dollins, in his geoMusings ( personal-geospatial-workflows/) states, “I spend a lot of time working with the Esri stack during my work day. A few years ago, I added a few open-source geospatial tools into my tool set and, since then, have also done a respectable amount to consulting work them as well. The balance between the two varies over time, depending on the requirements of individual customers and projects. Lately, commercial customers have seemed much more interested in open-source tools while my government customers are sticking with Esri.”

Figure 1

In the case of the GEOSS workflow, the approach is a mix and match of different datasets and processes from different sources. These data and processes are not necessarily the best for the purpose and could be replaced depending on their fitness of purpose and the availability of new datasets and processes.

Thus, the processes could be implemented on standard COTS, Open Source or even custom modules written from scratch, while the data could be shared for the purpose of the project. The key here i s standardisation and interoperability of data and processes. A similar view is echoed by Chris Gibson, Vice President, Trimble Navigation, when he says, “If you look at data management and integration from a customer perspective you find that a number of customers have data in a variety of databases.” Gibson thinks the challenge is how to extract the information that is necessary to solve a particular problem or challenge on behalf of the customer and put that into a structure that will help the client in solving the overall problem; at the same time, leave the original data in its raw form for next solution or database.

Figure 2

Gibson points out that process productivity is the key. It has four elements. The first is collection of data. Data can come from multiple sources such as a surveyor using total station, LiDAR, satellite imagery, mobile mapping vehicles and devices, UAVs etc. The next step is how this data is processed. A significant amount of data has to be processed to help the customer make meaningful business decisions, and there are many solutions available for that too. “Once the data is processed, we look at the modelling phase. Modelling has two elements: data modelling and process modelling. In data modelling we provide a 3D visualisation of the data that has been collected. Process modelling involves enhancements to the data and making the process more effective. Fourth, and most important, what decision does the customer need to make using this data,” he adds.

The second example of NLRMP illustrates the other approach where proprietary COTS software is customised to create an integrated workflow. This is similar to the Esri stack referred by Dollins. A variation of this approach is where the vendor provides a complete suite of software perhaps under a common GUI.

Geospatial Media & Communications CEO Sanjay Kumar in his article on Geospatial Workflows Redefining Industry Ecosystem, says, “The entire ecosystem of geospatial industry, which was working with well-defined boundaries of its constituents, went through a rigorous scrutiny both by players within and outside the industry. The industry realised that the required degree of integration/convergence for developing a solution-centric workflow environment wasn’t an option to sail through by mere partnership and collaboration.” It requires acquisition of technologies, integration of processes, and embedding of workflows, which was possible with a structural re-organisation of the existing ecosystem. As an example, consider the acquisitions by Hexagon and the subsequent restructuring of its flagship product Intergraph such that “the full spectrum of geospatial capabilities is available … from a single provider”.

Dr. Siva Ravada, Senior Director of Development at Oracle, highlights the disappearing line between geospatial technologies and IT, while noting that they both share the same platform. Every database has an implicit spatial context, therefore can contribute to spatial analysis. The Oracle Spatial product therefore, not only includes spatial analytics in applications and tools, fusion middleware MapViewer, event processing, Oracle Spatial and Graph database and bundled and Cloud-based map content but also provides interoperability with a host of other geospatial and IT products.

“An agile and flexible platform can help organisations extract more value from their data to drive greater profitability, reduce risk and deliver more personalised and contextually relevant customer experiences,” says Manish Choudhary, Vice President, WW Engineering, Pitney Bowes, which offers products that can be integrated with client business data and powerful spatial algorithms can be applied to enhance existing processes. Globally, telecommunications companies use Pitney Bowes MapInfo products to optimise network coverage and increase revenue through identifying where they can drive broader adoption.

Choudhary adds that the challenge faced by businesses in today’s fast-paced and competitive environment is to draw actionable insights from growing datasets locked in internal and external sources that may not be properly utilised by all organisations and is often trapped in rigid parts of the business.

Customer information is a business asset and competitive differentiator. An enabling technology is that which helps clients understand the value of their data — revealing insights into customer relationships and preferences. An apt example is Esri’s ArcGIS which integrates into a company’s existing business and data architecture. It has all the characteristics of a platform — data management, analysis, workflow templates, mobile apps, development frameworks and information products. Simon Thompson, Director, Commercial Industry, points out that the power of the Cloud to deliver location analytics makes maps widely accessible to many different users and business problems. It extends and enriches business intelligence, and ERP and Office, so it is easily accessible to people familiar with those systems.

Because of this, location analytics will become more than just a technology; it is going to be a widely adopted pattern for enhancing organisational efficiency and individual effectiveness. “It is more than “dots on maps”; it’s a way to create understanding from spreadsheets and tables, to visualise data in different ways to convert results into decisions and decisions into benefits,” says Thompson.

Implementing workflows
Geospatial workflows can be found in many application areas in government, such as disaster management, oil and gas exploration, infrastructure, transportation management, and e-governance; in industries like insurance, utilities management, design and engineering, and auditing; and in the public domain like location-based services to name a few. The incentives to adopt geospatial workflows are different in different situations.

According to Gibson, the adoption rate of geospatial workflows and the factors influencing it vary across regions. For instance, in US, lot of geospatial workflow adoption relates to productivity improvements such as in workforce, materials quality or the safety of the finished products. It is about how we can be more effective and efficient. “The key element here is to understand the customer needs,” he adds.

The geospatial industry thinks better management of business processes and making geographical knowledge available to citizens are two of the most important trends impacting stakeholders. It is the realisation about usefulness and long-term cost effectiveness of using geospatial tools and technologies that has led the geospatial industry to grow at a fast pace, feels Choudhary.

From a manufacturer’s perspective, it is about building relationships with customers, getting deep into their workflows and migrating them from task productivity to process productivity. This entails understanding the challenges that they are trying to solve, and working with them to solve the challenges for them. For instance, when it comes to deformation monitoring of mines, it is about integrating a number of geological and geospatial sensors and technologies into a total solution that will provide an early warning system on the stability and slope of the mines. So if there is a possibility of a slide, a mining company can move the human assets and take corrective measures before the catastrophe happens. The same can be implemented on dams, bridges and other structures. So the critical thing is to understand the customer and what he is trying to do, and build a solution accordingly.

Kaushik Chakraborty, Vice President, Hexagon India, cites the example of security agencies adopting geospatial workflows to circumvent the shortage of manpower. By creating a geo-tagged database of all the crime and incidents that happen in an area and subjecting the data to geospatial analysis, service providers and police can spatially profile the incidents. For example, on studying the profile of a particular area they might concur that Friday evenings are more prone to a particular type of crime in that area, so they may deploy more force there. Geospatial technology helps police to not only collect the crime data according to location, but also offers a complete chain of solutions which helps them in preventing or solving crime cases. Similarly, the technology is used extensively for border control and monitoring.

Likewise, utilities need to know the geographic location of their assets which include their customer base to be able to provide efficient services through better load balancing for distribution of power among different areas according to their load. Power outage information is relayed to the company via a consumer’s phone call or through an automated system. The utility company then determines the location, and the number of consumers affected through an integrated SCADA and GIS based system. Automatic meter reading through smart meters is another application.

Interestingly, geoinformation and technologies also play a major part when businesses are interdependent on each other. For instance, Chakraborty points out that use of geospatial technology in agriculture and manufacturing companies goes as far back as the 1970s, when the manufacturer of the famous Mars chocolate bars, which had signed a contract with peanut growers of the Georgia, wanted to test if they could predict the yield of peanut using geospatial technology. Today, agriculture companies around the world not only use the entire chain of geospatial solutions throughout the workflow, but also have significant investments in earth observations companies. For example, RapidEye has significant investment from insurance companies which want to know forecast crop yields, and the degree of damage in case of a natural calamity; and the cost to the insurance company in terms of claims. The workflow includes analysis of various factors using IT tools. The use of GIS as a horizontal information asset layer across IT systems is now a standard in organisations and businesses around the world. Economic development and changing demographics, wealth, social mobility and access to technology are driving large scale investments in GIS to support growth and development. Retailers are using it to plan and open stores or launch smarter campaigns, manufacturers to site production facilities and optimise warehousing and distribution, transport companies to ship and store goods, insurance companies to evaluate risk based on local demographics and weather patterns, real estate companies to site offices, leisure, shopping, hotels and other lifestyle centres, while other business are modelling the goods and services we need, how much and where.

According to Thompson, these models require predictive analytics, with a historic view, near-real-time data and prescriptive insight and lots of geographic data — traffic patterns, past sales, store competition, demographics, buying behaviour, and events. “The technology has gone indoors inside stores to help track merchandise, offer coupons to mobile users, and model customer and shopping patterns to improving product placement. New innovations including ‘click and collect’ and e-tailing that are turning stores into distribution centres, forcing supply chains to optimise and reformat. GIS assists by helping them understand and streamline networks for higher efficiency and improved employee performance. Excess banks, stores, and ATMs can be removed successfully without impacting profitability or service,” he adds.

The architecture and engineering occupations group which includes surveyors, cartographers, photogrammetrists, and surveying technicians is also one industry which is increasingly using these technologies.

Evolving trends & the future
The progressively complex and accelerating pace of change in geospatial technology industry offers various possibilities for meeting the increasingly sophisticated geospatial information demands of the government, private industry, scientists and the public. Once a tool that was affordable only to the largest organisations, geospatial systems have become a worthwhile option for even the smallest organisations.

Thompson points to the two big recent trends — big data and GIS and the consumerisation of IT in business. Today, GIS data and analysis is available anywhere to anyone, on any device. It has become part of the app culture but operates as a secure platform in the company’s offices, in the Cloud or a combination of the two. This means that companies are going beyond analytics; they are getting specific answers to questions, intelligence which drives operational performance and improved results.

With the availability of personal devices like smartphones, phablets and tablets, and the proliferation of Web-based geospatial services the access to geospatial information has become ubiquitous. Neo-geographers can not only contribute volunteered geographical information (VGI) but also use the services in their day-to-day activities. “As personal and business interactions take flight globally on tablets and smartphones, a company’s ability to instantaneously talk, text, market, sell and delight their customers with relevant content has come to be expected,” says Choudhary. This recent trend, known as the consumerisation of GIS, increasingly requires non-GIS experts to build and support location-based applications and services in order to meet the consumer demand for heightened engagement and interaction. The key is to use standards-based Web Services technology that is simple, intuitive and user friendly.

Social media has become an important vehicle where the public can express their views and concerns. Businesses are using social media as an important way of remaining connected with their customers. Social media companies are able to give their users a better social experience while marketers and advertisers can target their messages to the right audience resulting in an increased likelihood of action. “Location will become a cornerstone for social media marketing and social media networks like Facebook, Twitter etc. have become channels for users to broadcast location and sentiment,” thinks Choudhary.

Thompson has an interesting way of looking at the future: “New technology and consumer innovations have a big impact on how we live, work, shop, dine and spend our leisure time. Successful companies are now moving to understanding the third place — somewhere else other than where we live or work — in order to outperform the competition.” The third place is an important concept linked to peoples’ behaviourial patterns. Everything about it involves location. GIS is the best way to understand it and place-based activities have become more important to many companies, even more than online behaviour. Companies that have the best understanding of the third place are the most profitable, responsive and innovative.

Ravada considers the future to be shaped by the Internet of Things. Technology will be infused by location. Billions of devices will generate enormous amounts of geographic and attribute data, which will be carried on the Internet. This will lead to new data products for consumers, government and industry and the rise of a new set of data consumers. Cost-effective ways to process new sources of data will fuel the next wave of spatial information management. Predictive solutions will be the next big category of geospatial applications. Government and authoritative sources will not only be consumers of cloud services, they will deliver the cloud.

However, as Gibson points out, standards and interoperability are a critical part of ensuring a smooth workflow. “It is important that we all work with organisations like OGC and develop standards that are universally acceptable and adoptable. As we progress in future, we will see much of data integration and data interoperability happening.”

Prof Arup Dasgupta,
Managing Editor,