Home Articles GIS can address the intangible ‘change’

GIS can address the intangible ‘change’


Lawrie E Jordon III
Director of Imagery Enterprise Solutions
ESRI Inc., USA

Tell us about your association with ESRI

Jack Dangermond and I are friends for 30 years. Both of us went to the same school – Harvard University, where GIS technology was actually born. For about 20 years, we worked on many strategic business partnerships when I was with my previous company. We were very successful together providing imagery and GIS solutions. In 2001, we merged our company with Leica Geosystems and I stayed on for a couple of years by agreement and then took an early retirement to spend time with family. After a while, I was missing GIS and imagery and getting bored. I started as a consultant then. After two-three years, Jack asked me to join ESRI full time and I am grateful to him for asking me to come on board at a higher level. I am happy that I got re-engaged with exciting projects and meeting old friends.

What strengths do you bring to ESRI imaging division?

My background and first love is imagery and remote sensing. This is the area I have been involved for 30 years and my strong belief from the beginning has been that imagery is a core component of GIS and is not a peripheral. In the past, there was imagery – raster, pixel, image processing versus GIS – topology, ArcInfo. They were two separate worlds. I feel both of them go together and GIS is incomplete without imagery. They are like two sides of a coin, where GIS informs imagery and imagery informs GIS. This is what I would like to focus upon at ESRI. I am happy to see there are a good number of people at ESRI having strong imagery background.

We have tremendous amount of expertise in imagery and we have made great progress in adding image capabilities to the mainstream product, ArcGIS. It is very imagery friendly already and we have planned new expansions in our imagery suite including imagery server extension.

Is this focus on imaging taking ESRI in a new direction?

This is not a new direction. It is continuation and expansion of our vision all along that GIS is a unified technology that brings all geo-information together. So imagery is a natural subset of our whole direction and emphasis. Our customers are keen to see more image integration into ArcGIS. So we are delivering additional capabilities to expand GIS. I wouldn’t say it’s a new direction but acceleration.

Is ESRI planning to make its own image processing modules?

There are two things; in the past, ESRI had a strategic relationship with ERDAS and that stayed as a successful business partnership for many years. Along with that, there are many other companies with whom ESRI has partnered successfully. We, at ESRI, rather than focussing on competition with other companies, work towards fulfilling the user needs and ensuring success of the user. ESRI has many common clients with all other companies out there, including ERDAS, and the primary focus is to deliver the best to them. We have core capabilities in imagery that we are expanding. It is important to point out that we also have very strong strategic partnerships with other companies that provide imaging solutions to us that we don’t need to reinvent. For example, ITT ENVI has outstanding image processing capabilities that are easy to use with an interface called IDL. We are also working with other software providers like BAE System (SOCET SET solution) and ICube.

So will ArcGIS contain photogrammetry tools?

We look to our partners to provide specific solutions and provide other core solutions ourselves. Working with recognised leaders in verticals is always our preferred approach. It is important that there are image servers and image extensions natively that provide strong image processing capabilities as well. So we now have imagery friendly package where users do not have to go outside his/her working environment to do many other imagery related things like image data management, catalogue management, serving imagery throughout the enterprise, doing some functions actually in near-real time on the fly like mosaicing and orthorectification.

It’s like magic in the pipeline. We will not reinvent anybody else’s work. We encourage customers to look carefully at the solutions in the market and I think customers are quite capable of making their own decisions. The overarching scene for us is that imagery is part of GIS, tied together with geodatabase. In other words, it is the geodatabase centric model and this is different from image processing package.

What are the changes you foresee in data collection technology?

Data collection is dramatically increasing. This could be correlated to Moore’s law. You have an exponential increase in the volume, quantity, speed and performance and at the same time a significant reduction in the cost of some of these technologies. We see, especially in imagery, dramatic increase in the quality and the quantity in the timelines of the imagery and this is what people want – something easy to get and easy to use. There is a huge increase in the data sources of imagery. About 50 optical satellites have been scheduled for this year. This explosion is good for the industry. On the technology front, we see a trend of moving the information tools closer to the sensors so that when the information comes to the user, it is already in the form they need. This is where the image server and SOA (service oriented architecture) can play a key role. With a set of raw pixels, you define a service definition and when the fresh imagery comes in, it is automatically delivered in the way you need it without corrupting and disturbing the source data.

You said GIS is addressing the intangibles. Can you elaborate?

One of the greatest intangibles is the uncertainty brought about by change in environment over time. The challenge is the sustainability of our environment and what we are doing to take care of this and what GIS can do. We see GIS as an enabling technology to support sustainability because together imagery and GIS can provide not only visualisation of what is happening in terms of climate change, biodiversity and impacts on every aspect of society, it can also analyse that change and provide solutions to address the problem. I think GIS is changing the way we think, act and make decisions.

More and more we see that people, not just GIS specialists, around the world are actively involved in using GIS together with imagery to understand the changes around and are trying to minimise the impact on the planet.

What do you expect from the technologies the way they are coming up with better resolution – spatial as well as spectral?

There are two aspects of this – one is the temporal aspect. The fundamental strength that good GIS tools bring to this topic is the 4th dimension – time. It is about the ability to visualise how changes happen in 3D over time and this is an area where imagery contributes significantly because it is temporal and provides fresh new views.

As far as spatial resolution goes, I would like to cite a point that was published in one of the papers and I think we all would agree upon that. It says that there is strong argument to be made that you come out ahead and better if you have multiple sources of imagery of different resolutions – spatial and spectral as opposed to one super high resolution imagery focus on one thing. You actually have more information content from lower resolution data sources when you have a variety of sources that you can look at and work upon. You can actually gain more information by having less spatial resolution.

The ability of an information system to combine different resolution datasets brings strength to the table. I would always argue in favour of more information in as many different ways and at the same time I want smart information tools that can near down the data to meaningful interpretation quickly. This is what I would like to refer to as ‘allusion of simplicity’. It takes a lot of science to take a complex set of data as multispectral, hyperspectral, LiDAR etc. and turn them into useful products. It is not much about ground resolution.