GIS Becomes Geospatial: Issues Affecting the Evolution of Geospatial Technology

By Monica Schnitger, Daratech Inc.


In an ideal world, an electric utility engineer monitoring the company’s assets would hear an alarm, look at a computer screen, see an area experiencing an outage and immediately have access to information needed to fix the underlying cause, restore power and keep customers informed of progress-all without leaving his station. Clicking on an outage area would bring up information on the residences or businesses in the area, indicating which might be more critical to restore than the rest (a nursing home or hospital, for example). The more accurately a utility can assess outages, prioritize response and determine how long it will take to restore service, the more readily it can inform customers about the status of the outage.

But managing the outage is only partly a customer relations issue. Access to the correct, up-to-date information can help the engineer determine how to move crews and equipment. To be effective, the engineer needs pole mapping, circuit IDs, transformer locations and drops, underground distribution and a host of other data from various databases kept by the utility, affected businesses, municipalities and other sources. Each of these data elements is considered metadata, tied to a spatial location. Add together spatial information about the outage with technical asset management information, and we’ve entered the realm of “geospatial” data. In essence, “geospatial” is “geographic information systems” (GIS) brought into the new millennium.

GIS has evolved from large databases of mapping data stored on a mainframe, accessible by a few highly trained specialists, to a distributed network of specialized databases tied together and made accessible to unlimited numbers of people via the Internet. The old GIS term no longer encompasses all the tools and technologies used in this more modern world-and we now move forward into the new world of geospatial solutions.

Definitions are a tricky thing. A term’s definition can change as its usage evolves, until the term’s meaning has changed without anyone noticing. A very specific definition of GIS might read thusly: “A geographic information system is a computerized database management system used for capture, storage, retrieval, manipulation, analysis and display of spatial (or locationally defined) data.” Geospatial technologies, on the other hand, capture, store, manage, integrate, display, analyze and otherwise assist in the interpretation of geospatial data in its entire context for better decision-making. Geospatial data, in turn, identifies the geographic location and characteristics of natural or man-made features and boundaries on the earth. This information is gathered from remote sensing, mapping, surveying and other technologies.

This broader definition of geospatial technologies recognizes that legacy engineering data from CAD systems, billing information from ERP systems, facilities management and many other types of enterprise content must be brought together with the traditional spatial data from a GIS to efficiently make decisions. Geospatial technologies enable businesses, governments and utilities to more effectively plan, design and maintain public works and networked infrastructure such as electric, gas and water systems; telecommunication networks; roads, railways and bridges; and built assets of many other types.

While the technologies, products and user bases for geospatial technologies are quite a bit more diverse than those of GIS, they share many common attributes: The technology investment is often quite large, the integration issues are complex and the potential benefit is enormous. Following are the latest issues affecting the geospatial industry.

Too Much Data, not Enough Standardization

This problem has been around for years, and there are no signs of abatement. As organizations (public and private) cooperate-or consolidate, as is happening in the utilities market, for example-enterprises find themselves trying to integrate and share vast databases of valuable data, often at great cost. Oracle’s Spatial release enables Oracle database users (but no one else) to incorporate locational information such as geocoded addresses in their applications and services. This will ease the integration of an Oracle back-office with other elements of an enterprise’s geospatial solution but will not address the issue of a heterogeneous database environment.

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Of course, no one standard has emerged predominant in the geospatial technology arena-primarily because practitioners cannot agree on which standard is “best.” Technology evolution is also so rapid right now, that any published standard could be obsolete before widespread implementation. But it is also not necessarily in a software developer’s best interest to be “too open” because that will remove switching barriers that tie an enterprise to a particular solution provider.

Ultimately, however, consumers will demand and force the supplier community to adhere to standards-if only to ensure that the technology survives in the greater IT environment of the enterprise.

“The Web Changes Everything”

Some wag said that a few years ago-and he was right. Even people who have never heard of GIS or geospatial technologies have used the very popular Yahoo! Maps (maps.yahoo.com, using technology provided by Navteq Corporation), MapQuest (mapquest.com, also powered by Navteq) or a similar service to figure out how to get from one street address to another.

Governments, utilities, communications companies and other enterprises are looking for ways to interact with customers, employees and partners via the Internet. Geospatial technologies are enabling governments to make information available to their citizens on simple, effective websites-potentially reducing staffing in town offices. Utilities are able to have customers pay online by tying together remote meter sensing with billing software. Remote access may eventually make it possible to serve the utilities engineer with up-to-the-moment information for his wireless PDA (see next section). The issues in serving information on such a wide basis are enormous. For example, each implementation is unique and must decide what information to make available, how to protect data that should not be shared, who should have access and how the information will best be displayed for each type of user, among many other issues.

The Internet has created a huge demand spiral for geospatial technologies: As more information is made available, consumers will demand more, which will lead to more being made available.

Mobile Computing Confers Real Business Benefit

Along the same lines as web access, mobile computing will become the delivery vehicle of choice for many geospatial technologies in the next few years. Examining an engineering drawing on a PDA is an exercise in futility, but looking at specific geospatial data on a hardened tablet PC is increasingly realistic. Indeed, geospatial data has already made it to the construction site to make dig safe earthmoving more efficient. A site plan is created, downloaded to a ruggedized display in a bulldozer and compared to global positioning system (GPS) coordinates as earth is removed, leading to manpower savings and more efficient earthworks. Similar uses will proliferate as the display and interaction devices become less fragile, more user-friendly and with better screen resolution.

Homeland Security Initiatives are Changing Priorities

Many advances in technology can be made to help upgrade the plan and execution in an emergency. The aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack has led to a re-examination of emergency preparedness procedures around the world and is one of the driving factors behind the redefinition of this marketplace. The realization that a better outcome might be achieved in case of terrorist attack, fire, natural disaster or other emergency through the integration of many types of disparate data has led to increased spending for existing tools and research efforts on new technologies. While difficult to prove, it is possible that much of the innovation happening right now in geospatial technologies is driven by security initiatives. Preliminary research indicates a 10 percent increase in governmental spending at all levels on GIS technologies-not including expenditure on hardware such as handheld devices-much of it for security initiatives.

ROI Matters

In other technology areas a calculated return on investment (ROI) has been a critical factor in technology selection. This has been slow in coming to the geospatial realm, partly because many of the implementations were in governmental or regulated environments where affectivity was measured differently. But ROI is very much a concern of for-profit enterprises and is starting to take hold in geospatial, too.

Research has long shown that most companies require a rapid return on any IT investment. In the difficult economy prevalent over the last few years, this has evolved into what is called “3-6-9 strategies.” Companies in many different industries describe how projects that can be implemented in three months, reach breakeven in six months and be making significant contributions in nine months are winning budget approval at companies urgently seeking ways to do more with less. Many of the effects of a geospatial implementation, including reduced staffing due to website access of information, better data integration, increased productivity and greater customer satisfaction, can lead to a positive ROI statement.

Specialization Continues

All technology markets, including GIS/geospatial, cater to many different buyers. Some want a general, enterprise solution while others have a very specific, pinpoint need. Large, established solution providers will continue to cater to both extremes but a cluster of specialist providers is emerging to provide solutions that may not meet a mass-market need. These specialists will either operate in concert with a “platform” technology to provide the solution or will (less likely) try to compete for the platform as well.

Rapid Evolution of Data Sources Requires Nimble Usage

Data from many sources, some free and others on a for-fee basis, must be combined to offer a rich, comprehensive decision-making tool. Continuing advances in the data available from satellite imagery, networked ground sensors, GPS systems, 3-D laser scanners and other emerging technologies lead to questions about data currency and accuracy, the best use of this data in combination, adherence to standards-and many other issues.

Outsourcing Evolves as an Option

Many organizations have decided that their competence is in making decisions based on geospatial data-not in managing, updating and transforming data, software or hardware. These companies have chosen to outsource these services, often to services providers specializing in their particular industry (utility or government, for example) or in a particular service (data conversion, for example). This trend allows the service provider to leverage its expertise and spread that domain knowledge over many consumers, ultimately reducing the cost to the consumer while maintaining an acceptable profit margin.


Examining an engineering drawing on a PDA is an exercise in futility, but looking at specific geospatial data on a hardened tablet PC is increasingly realistic.
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The GIS services business is large and fragmented, with local, regional and national specialty providers competing against established firms servicing large installations and governmental organizations. Companies compete based on the breadth of their service offerings, the accuracy of the data provided in conversions, the responsiveness of outsourced data centers and the ability of the organization to scale to meet the demands of large, complex projects. Competing on price is also prevalent, but is difficult to evaluate as lower-priced services offerings are often outsourced to offshore contractors, prohibited in many governmental contract awards.

Information Management is Key to Success

The next big battle in the geospatial technology realm will be fought over how well spatial information and related metadata are managed. For many organizations, the key to a managed environment is data synchronization-ensuring that data and metadata can be leveraged by all types of users. In essence, data that is not synchronized is not useful. Why share data that cannot be relied upon to be the latest, most accurate version? Other elements of data management include retiring data that is no longer needed; connecting geospatial data to other information systems such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems; presenting information in 2-D graphics, 3-D displays or alphanumeric reports as appropriate to the content and reader; and the ability to search, query or otherwise navigate the content-documents, components and metadata.

Conclusion

The integration of GIS/geospatial will enhance the performance of many companies within many industries. Much unrealized benefit will accrue to utilities that make good use of GIS/geospatial technologies. If the engineer in the opening example can more readily gain access to integrated, up-to-date information about the state of the utility’s assets and customers, the outage can be dealt with more readily, customers kept informed of progress and regulators informed in an appropriate fashion. In the end, all stakeholders will benefit.௣à¯£

Monica Schnitger is senior vice president of market analysis for Daratech, Inc. (www.daratech.com), a leading provider of information technology market research and technology assessment, advisory and strategic consulting services.

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