An Industry Grows Up

By Carey Mann


In the last few weeks, we have seen a flurry of discussion around the use of the term "geospatial" to describe the broad industry that provides spatially related technology, products, and services.The catalyst for this discussion was the decision by the Open GIS Consortium to change its name to "Open Geospatial Consortium."

A change in an international brand with considerable equity is not to be taken lightly.It indicates that the OGC recognizes the nature of the community it serves has significantly changed, and that the consortium wants its name to leave no ambiguity about the precision of its mission.

Some historical context clarifies and provides perspective.Over the past two decades, the "geo" community has struggled to choose a term that collectively describes spatially oriented technology and services."Mapping," a natural term initially given to the automation of a centuries-old profession, soon gave way to "Automated Mapping/Facilities Management" or "AM/FM," which then gave way to "GIS." Many who felt GIS was a limiting term adopted the more broadly intended "geomatics." Others simply applied the prefix "geo-" to technologies it seemed to suit.

But what once looked like the evolution of a monolithic and homogeneous technology is now clearly a collection of distinct, but related, technologies.Consider the range of spatially related technologies: surveying, GPS, photogrammetry, remote sensing, imaging, conversion, mapping, cartography, GIS, decision support, business demographics, mobile applications, location-based services, asset (facility) management, and Web publishing.More can be added to this list, and it continues to grow.

Recognizing the breadth of geospatial technology is important to understanding what exactly each technology is and where it fits.All things in this industry are not mapping, are not AM/FM, and are not GIS.So, to look at any one technology solely in the context or viewpoint of another can distort our understanding of what it is.

The need for precision and clarity is made more acute as spatially related technologies finally start to find their place in the enterprise.We must function in a broader context, and not as closed functional islands.This broader context invites rationalization of functionality and meaningful integration at a systems level.And with Oracle 10g, Microsoft's location-based server, and initiatives by other mainstream technology leaders, this enterprise trend will accelerate rapidly.This industry is now bigger than the sum of its parts.

The community around spatial technology reflects this rapidly broadening diversity of technology.In the geo press, we have Directions, GeoWorld/GeoPlace (formerly GIS World), GeoSpatial Solutions, GIM International (Geomatics Information Management), GIS Monitor, GeoCommunity's SpatialNews, Geoinformatics, and GeoReport eNewsletter, among others.It is as if there is a natural impulse that the industry is broader than GIS and needs some common reference.There is agreement on "geo," yet a unifying term seems elusive.

With major vendors, the same trend is evident: ESRI markets "GIS and Mapping" software; Autodesk's GIS Solutions Division has been renamed Infrastructure Solutions and offers "infrastructure design and management software;" GE Power (aka Smallworld) provides "Geospatial Asset Management;" MapInfo offers solutions for "location-based information;" Oracle offers "spatial" extensions to its database; Intergraph's Mapping and Geospatial Solutions provides "Geospatial Resource Management;" and Bentley provides geospatial solutions for government, public works, communications, and utilities.

Some in the press have acknowledged this fractured use of terminology.Joe Francica, editor of Directions, commenting on Oracle's 10g announcement and how it reflects on the evolution of the industry, said "The term 'GIS' is gone." Matt Ball, editor of the renamed GeoWorld, uses the term "geotechnology" to describe the collective.

But it is clear that more than any, the term that is getting traction is geospatial.It is increasingly used within the industry: in marketing materials, in editorial coverage and commentary, in publication names (e.g., GeoSpatial Solutions), by two key associations (OGC and GITA), and now directly by two leading vendors (Bentley and Intergraph).Daratech, inarguably the leading analyst following the industry, has recently announced that its comprehensive, seminal market overview "GIS Markets and Opportunities" will be renamed "Geospatial," and focus on the broader range of geospatially related technologies.

As you can see, the OGC name change was not an isolated or inconsequential event.It marks a watershed, a clear turning point in a long evolving process.OGC is not unique in its recognition of the changing character of this industry, nor is it the first organization to view "geospatial" as the unifying industry term.But the very nature of this industry organization as a unifier of its constituents has given a growing trend legitimacy and finality.It has made geospatial the unifying term, the standard for the industry.

Published Friday, October 15th, 2004

Written by Carey Mann

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