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GIS doing a disappearing ACT !


Bhanu Rekha
Associate Editor
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Like an inventive mind seeking new solutions, geospatial technology is finding its way into mainstream of applications designed to appeal to the mass market. These are simple applications which provide a useful purpose/entertainment, but which are built on complex geospatial functionality, with great interface design and brilliant process engineering, which is hidden. Again, this interface design can be done in multiple ways – integration and convergence being primary among them.

Integration of different information technologies has long been possible through custom engineering — that is,


‘tight coupling’ — of the interfaces and encodings of digital inputs and outputs of component devices’ and software modules. Technology convergence refers more generally to widespread integration through open standard interfaces and encodings, without custom coding. This is the ‘loosely coupled’ model of component interaction. In this article, let us examine how convergence is blurring the boundaries between technologies and what is the trend in technology convergence that is seemingly revolutionising the way we look at things and giving rise to mind boggling applications.

ROLE OF STANDARDS

While talking about the coming together of multiple technologies, it is necessary to examine the standards that guide each technology and determine if they are sufficiently interoperable. There was a time for proprietary technology and data formats but that time is long past for GIS. We have matured greatly since the early times of GIS, when such proprietary aspects were necessary. Today, we need to move on to the next step of focussing on solutions that can fully exploit and optimise core technologies like GIS. To achieve this, we need standards. “Standards will promote a broader and deeper use of our technology, and from a business point of view, will actually provide lucrative markets for entrepreneurs and companies,” opines Preetha Pulusani, Director-Rolta India Ltd. Having acknowledged the need for standards, it is also important to note that technology convergence is not possible without open standards. “Integration of different technologies within particular vendors’ product lines, or in agreements between particular vendors, does not enable ‘loose coupling’ in which different systems can connect without prior one-to-one accommodation of inputs and outputs,” argues David Schell, Chairman, OGC.

Acknowledging that standards are important, Univ.-Prof.Dr.Franz Leberl, Graz University of Technology, Austria, indicates that these will be of major concern only at some future point in time. “Right now, it is still too early to have this in our focus. What Google, Microsoft and many regional players do, is yet to appear on the radar screen for a call for standards,” he says.

Today, standards-enabled convergence in the geospatial domain is not only removing the barriers among remote sensing, photogrammetry, GIS, CAD, AM/FM and navigation, it has also made all types of geospatial data part of the general information technology environment. In other words, geospatial data is becoming ‘just another data type’. With OGC and ISO standards (and W3C, OASIS and Web services standards) in place, applications now have the ability to harness the power of technology convergence.

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Gaining maximum benefit from available geospatial resources has been the


sole aim of the community in spite of use of different abstractions, data models and processing approaches. As is the case with other scientific communities, geospatial community too is quickly adopting the rapidly evolving information and communication technologies to reach this goal, the Web being an intelligent and effective platform among them.

Until about 1999, software developers had to worry about coding for multiple distributed computing platforms — CORBA, COM/OLE, SQL and others. Then the popularity of open standards that define the Internet and the Web resulted in a distributed computing platform that quickly overwhelmed all others in terms of number of users.

This way, most of the application developers chose to focus their efforts on Webbased distributed geoprocessing, leading to an explosion of sorts. Google Earth, Microsoft Visual Earth, Photosynth are just but a few spinoffs of this explosion. It is not an exaggeration to say that Google Earth has shaken up the geospatial industry. And, it woke up a lot of people – some who had never been in this area – to innovate and come up with new, ‘cool’ applications using geospatial technologies.

Emphasising the importance of Web, Preetha says, “It is a paradigm shift on how to reach more people, how to impact more lives and how to provide significant efficiencies in services. What we can do by utilising the Web expansively for geospatial applications and for geospatially-enabled solutions can only be limited by one’s imagination!”

“As the issues of ownership have changed over the years, users can now upload and download, generate and distribute their own content. With this, GIS has moved out of the basement and into the forefront of development. This will increasingly take lead and we will see new data formats emerge. Creation and use of collaborative mapping and geoweb and geobrowsers could emerge as a trend. Users will be able to search for information based on location instead of only keywords. With Web as a platform, enterprise devices and industrial mobile computers (IMCs) with 3.5G (HSDPA) compatibility and A-GPS support will see more

and more enterprises adopting them to connect and empower their workforce with mobility,” says Ramesh Sundararaman, Business Manager, Mobile Computing Division, Motorola Enterprise Mobility.

LOCATION BASED SERVICES

The world is getting more mobile and more mobile-enabled. For some, location based services (LBS), is just another area of application with the difference that the channel used to communicate with the end user is different. But for others, this is a niche area of application with enormous potential.

With the possibility of having positioning, navigation, mapping and a hoard of other value-added services all in a single hand-held, LBS is a classic example of technology convergence where sky seems to be the only limit!

Countless developers around the world are trying to imagine new location based services that will meet human and institutional needs, and they have a growing toolbox of components

and interfaces that require no special knowledge of the fine points of geodesy, vector processing, or image manipulation. Those details are embedded and ‘out of sight’ in components that implement the standard interfaces and encodings, opines David Schell. Taking an objective stance, Preetha says, “As core technology matures, it takes away the barriers where each application developer has to think through and solve basic issues such as how to communicate in a mobile environment and how to display on a small device. These are already being solved by core technology developers encouraging the minds of smart people to focus on new location-based services that provide attractive services to consumers while creating commerce.” Today, mobile companies and service providers are increasingly looking at convergence of voice and data applications. “With significant growth in services sector – transportation, logistics, organised retail and associated supply chain, banking and financial sector and manufacturing operations – the next few years could well see splurge in technology giving mobile workers power of real time access to contextual information,” says Ramesh Sundararaman. He believes the advent of 3G in full force and support for A – GPS in devices will add momentum to the growth. A – GPS will be preferred over stand alone GPS for zeroing in on location.

“LBS technology will evolve to such a level of integration where all the future businesses will be completely dependent on LBS,” predicts Amit Prasad, CEO, Satnav Technologies. “The largest impact in the next five years will stem from the future development and maturation of GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite Systems). Space based augmentation systems for GPS (SBAS) such as the US (WAAS), European (EGNOS) and Japanese (MSAS) continue to provide improved accuracy, coverage and integrity for users,” says Paul Witt, director of Marketing, NavtechGPS.

DIGITAL CITIES – A REALITY(?)

You may choose to disbelieve, but the dream and concept of digital cities – tomorrow’s cities built on an open plat- 34 APR I L 200 9 GIS DEVELOPMENT Digital city – convergence of CAD, GIS, BIM, visualisation and Web form that supports secure and robust convergence of CAD; building information modelling (BIM); geospatial, simulation and visualisation data and the Web – is 15-year-old! This is a combined digital ecosystem that can capture, analyse and visualise projects on a city even before they see the light of the day with the aim of building tomorrow’s high performance cities and economies that are sustainable. And experts echo in unison that this is absolutely a realisable goal. While Preetha feels that this concept has already been realised in many cities around the world, citing the case of Dubai, David anticipates it to take some years to take off, because so many kinds of systems are involved and because the design and construction and real property worlds involve so many players.

“The Internet, cellular telephony and augmented reality are increasingly defining the way we experience our human habitat; some form of GIS being part of this convergence,” says Prof Leberl, who coins the term ‘digital human habitat’ to better encapsulate the meaning of ‘digital cities’. “This concept is realisable and is being realised at this time. We are seeing the magical 1 exabyte being produced from the air, from the street and from inside buildings, and this digital human habitat is evolving, a sort of ‘First Life’ inspired by the Second Life paradigm. This is happening now and will get more pervasive and visible in the next five years,” he vouches.

Digital cities ought to be sustainable and should be able to provide efficient services and good governance to the citizens. Let us examine how technology convergence can contribute to this. “Technology convergence enables governments and others to share, find and use much more data about these than before. This is important in emergency management, early warning, disaster management,


science, education and other domains of activity. Converged digital technologies will be a critical factor in next generation transportation systems and energy systems,” argues David.

“I can give you unlimited number of examples around the world that require this convergence and are playing a part in better services for citizenry – these include security applications that need convergence of multiple, disparate sources of information to make the right decisions to protect people, resource management or simply e-governance where basic government services to people are more efficiently implemented. Let me also say that technology convergence has been occurring for many years, the difference between then and now is that the convergence was more manual earlier and today it is becoming more automated and ‘natural’,” Preetha says. However, David notes that the advance of information technology doesn’t necessarily mean more centralised control. In many cases, widely distributed networked devices enable less centralised control, as in ‘smart cars’ and the ‘smart grid’, both of which will involve geospatial information.

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Be it in decision support, development of an application, gaining better efficiency or increased ROI, GIS is no longer used as a solitary tool at enterprise level. “The fact that GIS is no longer viewed as a solitary tool speaks volumes to the maturity of the technology and its applications around the world,” says Preetha. “The utility of geospatial information for decision support, for example, is clearly a platform where convergence is necessary. This is because decision support is not a GIS application, it is a business need and application. It often calls for integration of information that is maintained in different systems, be it CRM, ERP, HR, or others,” she maintains.

Voicing similar sentiments, David says, “Enterprise integration is focussed today on Service Oriented Architectures (SOA), that is, integrated workflows in which information flows across the Internet, and usually the Web, between clients and services that in most cases implement open standard interfaces and encodings.” He emphasises by adding, “Often, the services are provided by third parties: for example, neither you nor your vendor owns the credit card processing service that enables you to buy something on the Web. ROI improves because: legacy systems can be fitted to use open standard interfaces and encodings; ‘best of breed’ components can be purchased ‘off the shelf’ instead of custom-coded; components can be special purpose instead of full-featured systems that contain unneeded functionality; future integration will not require new custom interfaces and encodings; and communication with supply chain partners is more easily accomplished because they, too, will be using open standards.”

Seeing the world with different eyes and bringing out a new perspective, Leberl says, “Companies like Google and Nokia, not the traditional mapping/ GIS companies, will rule the game. They will roll up the ‘enterprise’ by providing to it their technology-, internet- and spatial data infrastructures. Niche players will have role to play to integrate the confidential enterprise data with the public Internet systems though.”

Notwithstanding this, Preetha predicts the future of technology convergence at enterprise level saying, “Over the next five years, and actually much sooner than that, there will be significant increase in this arena. Many things make this possible. There are modern technology enablers such as SOA, one or two solution providers who recognise the significance of integration are bringing fusion solutions into the market and the users of technology are becoming more sophisticated, advancing their application of the technology. And as core technology matures and saves the problems of convergence, more application developers can take advantage of this to focus on the applications themselves leading to horizontalisation.”

CONCLUSION

With convergence, there is an increasing trend at horizontalisation and a chance that geospatial may disappear into the domain it serves. This transforms geospatial to becoming just another data type, like ASCII or jpg and disappearing into main domains. Agreeing to this, David says, “Indeed, most users of Web mapping applications have never heard the word ‘geospatial’, they don’t know about different coordinate reference systems, they don’t know vector-based from raster-based, they don’t know about data schemas or the separation of content from presentation.”

Differing with this comment, Preetha says, “There will always be the need for geospatial experts because as soon as you conquer one mountain, there is another one to climb – in the geospatial domain. However, it is true that within other domains, the focus will become that particular domain, as industry makes it ever simpler and easier to integrate geospatial information into their applications. In other words, you will not need to be a geospatial expert in order to effectively use the information.”

In the final analysis, as ‘geospatial’ becomes buried deeper in our information systems, it serves an increasing number of users and application domains.

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