DaaS - New Name, Familiar Service?

By James Cutler

James Cutler, CEO at emapsite, looks at the recent announcement from PBBI in the context of existing solutions to old user challenges (Directions Magazine coverage 1, 2, 3).

Giving users what they want
The geographic information (GI) industry has arguably been less than proficient at giving users what they want. It has often been happy to wallow in an acronym-strewn "geosilo" and talk about how no one understands why location is so important, blind to the irony therein.

For many years, system vendors had a happily captive market for software CDs into which would be added a further pile of CDs for data, at a cost. All so easy, convenient and profitable. To an extent this still exists, though usually related to some consultancy capacity of the vendor. Not many users outside government need national GI data sets; even local authorities typically only need their own and bounding data. What the users want is a cost-effective, single source for on-demand, up-to-date data of their choosing, licensed appropriately.

Data as a Service (DaaS) is a mechanism for meeting exactly those requirements. There are a number of caveats of course; a successful DaaS intermediary/channel has to have:
  • all relevant suppliers for the target market on board
  • all possible search options integrated
  • tools to define the user's area of interest
  • a suitable range of data formats
  • integrated dynamic pricing and licensing engine
  • a Tier-1 hosting platform for 24/7 operations
  • a trusted e-commerce solution provider
  • a robust back end process for data ingestion and update
  • a robust back end solution for geospatial data processing
  • in-depth technical support
  • flexible delivery options
Traditionally there have been a number of difficulties in achieving this objective. Concerns about very large data volumes are, of course, now a thing of distant memory, but suppliers and formats come and go, user expectations change and evolve, pricing and licensing models change, often on a whim, and suppliers will continue to compete with and often undermine their channel. Giving users what they want in the geodata world raises a unique set of technical, legal, operational and commercial challenges, to an extent territory-dependent. As a channel/intermediary in this environment, your aim is to be the destination of choice for your chosen marketplace(s) and the channel of choice for the data creator.

In the United Kingdom the key areas of interest for professional GI users have typically been data about the physical environment into which they then add their own site specific drawings, plans and other data. For sure there are large corporate and government agencies that need national or regional data sets but the predominant requirement is on-demand procurement of bite-sized, project-specific content for a current application. End users literally only pay for what they need and a matter of seconds later they have what they ordered, in a format of their choice.

It wasn't called DaaS a decade ago and some of those in this space may only have toyed with adoption of the "aaS" extension. But as data about geo/location/place have stayed resolutely niche, while the subject itself has risen up the corporate agenda, the net benefits of an outsourced data procurement and delivery service haven't attracted an acronym, until now.

The DaaS model?
DaaS providers do not tend to create their own original data. However, the creation of "value added data" from the integration of one or more elements from one or more suppliers does occur opportunistically and in response to market signals. In the main, DaaS providers take data from suppliers and make them available. For this, the supplier demands a royalty, DaaS support for the end user and confirmation that the end user understands and abides by the relevant license.

It has been suggested that there is a market making opportunity by which data creators can generate revenues for the data they've created by "putting them out there." In some ways that model is analogous not to iTunes but to the AppStore.

On iTunes you cannot extract one-half of one track and the first half of the next track; it's per track - although there might be a market for dynamic music creation from multiple sources! - whereas on DaaS platforms it is a fundamental requirement. On-demand geographic data services are far more granular than that. Staying with a music analogy, they effectively offer users a chance to choose which notes they want. Limiting users to whole tiles or specific subsets is not really extending choice. Letting them choose exactly what they want is.

In an AppStore type model you get a discrete "application" that typically pulls together multiple elements (data, platform, interactivity, GPS, etc.) to meet a user's needs.

It remains to be seen whether the new PBBI/WeoGeo player in the market adopts an iTunes "take it or leave it" model or a true DaaS approach.

Evidence suggests there is only a limited common overlap across the "willing to pay" marketplace for high value geographic data in a meaningful timeframe. In addition, complexities will arise from how the data created may actually have been derived. Whoever has IP in them will expect royalties from the "derived" data that militate against publishing discrete data sets. Further, it is unlikely that the data creator's core business is generating a return from the data and there may indeed be a competitive advantage in limiting their accessibility, commercial or otherwise. All of which makes it pretty doubtful as to whether there is a genuine market making opportunity, at least in the UK.

The relatively recent "freeing up" of public sector data in the UK (www.data.gov.uk) has exposed just how many data exist but also how complex and "dirty" they are. There is certain to be mileage in creating services around data that take the headache out of using them; this is rather different from the explosion in services envisaged by some who campaigned so hard for such data to be released. So, in this and similar commoditizing scenarios, there are market making opportunities around the service element rather than the data element per se.

Does anything change with a new entrant?
Sure it does. When a vendor as significant as PBBI begins to deliver on its CEO's ambition to become a cloud based business, then people sit up, take notice, ask questions and look around - all good. The debate also stimulates awareness of the DaaS concept, in an acronym-literate environment at least, and carries the wider implication that cloud based solutions to data provisioning are just fine.

The other, more subtle point is about the impact any of this will have on existing data suppliers (as opposed to ad hoc data uploaders). In particular PBBI will want to minimize the supply chain management and customer service and technical support overhead in what is essentially a new arena to PBBI. One way to do this is to dictate the terms by which data suppliers can license data to end users through the DaaS portal.

Anyone remotely familiar with geographic data licensing will be aware that every commercial (and free/open) data set carries a license document. A number of data suppliers have in the past done what appear to be "one off" sales of data to the likes of Google and Bing, washing their hands of downstream licensing as well as the impact that has on their existing channels in return for a lump sum. While national DaaS providers typically don't have pockets that deep, the national data suppliers themselves usually compete with their channels. This results in opaque licensing terms and markedly uneven playing fields. The truth is the data creators rarely have the market reach of the DaaS suppliers and are reluctant to step back. This will continue to be the case, making it very difficult for a DaaS provider bent on a simple low-overhead model.

Nevertheless, the day when data creators focus solely on what they do best and allow the service sector to optimize exposure to, procurement of, and use of their products, the more efficient will be the whole sector and less confused will be the end user.

There is no question that PBBI's entry into this marketplace on these terms, with this platform, raises the profile of geographic data acquisition, delivery and management services. That is great but it is by no means new! Any Web based capability is or should be agnostic about the hosting platform and architecture and should be capable of delivering what the user requested to whatever device the user happens to be using in order to deliver the greatest possible value to the user from that transaction. The back end takes care of all the processing, updating, replication, tracking, reporting, etc. while the users get on with what they do best.

DaaS is far more about all elements of the service than it is about the data - on the whole most serious users are familiar with the type of data they need and that are available, even if not with the range of providers offering them, and it is critical for their satisfaction that the service wrapper for those data meets and exceeds their expectations. Of course there are geo-savvy users who don't need support and often expect more for less and "can do it all themselves." But as location becomes ever more important to business decision making, the challenges associated with the geographic data supply chain militate very much in favor of trusting it to proven "experts." So, is DaaS the bandwagon? I don't really think so; people buy people, they buy trust and if the "D" is increasingly a level playing field then it's all about the "S" and that is sure to be the challenge.

Do you need a 101 on the key benefits of DaaS?
  • efficient data acquisition model for the end user, delivering data to the desktop in seconds, saving time and driving business productivity, performance and efficiency
  • economic way for acquiring (and paying licensing fees for) only what you need as a user
  • no-brainer for data creators, maximizing their reach
  • secure authentication and authorization across a variety of workflows and licensing models
  • Web services architecture supports reuse and white labelling
  • extensible standards-based delivery model
However, there are some caveats in that the customers for geographic data do often need a level of technical support, of which the capacity to deliver is, as in all service industries, a key differentiator. Professional geodata users have high expectations and make serious demands - they have a low pain threshold and are driven by value, in return expecting currency, richness, accuracy, simplicity, minimal risk and maximum utility.

Has DaaS evolved and where will it go next?
DaaS has been evolving for a decade and suppliers have been busy adding content and functionality in response to market demands and signals. It is not enough to have the data and provide the service; you have to be the platform as well.

One last point, professional end users detest advertising and are not prolific enough to sustain such a model. So you'd better have a business model; the barriers to DaaS access are already low - no paywall, no subscription, no sign-up fee, often free data previewing and no need to register until you actually checkout with your basket. Yep, DaaS 2.0 has been with us a while already wink.

Published Friday, June 18th, 2010

Written by James Cutler

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