Data, Data…Who’s Got the Data?

By Adena Schutzberg

As GIS matured, the software/data purchasing model has evolved. At one point, often buyers acquired both the system and the geospatial data from the same vendor, and then at another point, software vendors had "data partners." From there we are moving to a model where data are a commodity and perhaps someday nearly any vendor will be happy to sell/license/serve up any data in any format in any projection.

What does that mean? As I've suggested in the past, it means that those who hold the data, hold the keys to the kingdom. While municipalities and others who are interested in defined geographies or thematic data (endangered bird populations, for example) can and do use GPS to note the location of fire hydrants or speckled eggs, they don't have the expertise and funding to create a basemap, be it image or vector based. The efforts of Microsoft, Ask, Google, Yahoo (MAGY) and others have made it clear to those who've not considered the matter much, that the value in maps is in "putting your data on the map." I suspect that many in and outside the industry take for granted that
MAGY and others will be providing these comprehensive, high resolution basemaps to us forever for free. In fact, none have said they will.

In part because of this apparent "give away" of data (it's not free; MAGY et. al. pay for it on "our" behalf and then we pay via looking at/clicking on their ads), the value of the basemaps is rising. We can see the rising value clearly via behavior in the marketplace. A few weeks ago a conversation made public on the "geowanking" e-mail list explained how Google has an exclusive contract with DigitalGlobe that precludes any company but Google from putting the company's highest resolution imagery on the Web. That's not a new idea in the satellite imagery space. In 2001, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (then NIMA, now National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, or NGA) paid Space Imaging (now GeoEye) to receive exclusive access to imagery from IKONOS of Afghanistan for a period of several months.

Here's a second example of behavior revealing the rising the value of base data. It's one that might not resonate in the same way since the data are on paper, but should be considered in the same vein. I refer to the acquisition by East View Cartographic of the Telberg Geological Map Collection. I've never heard of the Telberg Collection, but the announcement makes it clear that the maps in it were hard to find in the first place, as they are from "some of the world’s most closed and isolated countries." East View now will be the "go to" place for these data. Just as there is no new land being formed of any size on the earth, there is no new "old" data being made. So East View is gathering what it can and, I'll suggest, holding on tight!

Others are attempting similar moves but in the "new data" arena. Small players with regional expertise are making solid names for themselves. I'm thinking of DMTI Spatial with its Canadian data, LeadDog, based in Alaska, with local data offerings in many countries, among others. Four big data vendors are working on global coverage in both vector and data form: Tele Atlas, NAVTEQ, DigitalGlobe and GeoEye. Surely these players are keeping careful watch on the smaller players, exploring partnerships and acquisitions.

I think DigitalGlobe did the right thing in 2003 in acquiring David Nale's eMap International and its expertise in using aerial and other imagery for business processes. I suppose if the satellite business had been more stable, one of three satellite vendors would have acquired an aerial firm for the long-term. (Space Imaging did acquire Pacific Meridian, with expertise in image analysis, in 2000, but later sold it to Geo360, after which it became part of Sanborn.) That may still happen, even as other consolidation occurs. Who will acquire EarthData, which has acquired part of Emerge of late? What about Intermap? That company made a play for AirPhotoUSA, a leading aerial company, to complement its LiDAR topography data capture, only to withdraw and see the prize go to GlobeXplorer, a company which, until that point, made no data, but distributed that of others. Another smaller player with its own aerial sensor technology, GeoVantage, was quietly acquired by John Deere.

Alongside those companies with well-tested data capture and production processes are the "new" data acquisition technology developers. They are also in play. Microsoft acquired GeoTango and Vexcel, but for now is riding high based on its deal with Pictometry. In-house work on "street side" and PhotoSynth, at least right now, seem to be generating more excitement. Perhaps that's simply a function of "one in the hand being worth two in the bush"? New vans are patrolling the streets not only for Tele Atlas and NAVTEQ, but also for Google and Amazon. Will these or other players soon be sending their own microsatellites into orbit for data capture?

The bottom line? We have a data and data capture land grab going on in 2006. This is occurring even as governments work to collect and make data available for free or fee across the world. And, it's occurring even as "free data" advocates collect and publish their own basemaps. Geospatial technology users, from those in the depths of GIS analysis to those pondering the latest location-based service, need to consider how they want their data future to look. Do you want Google to have exclusive Web rights to commercial imagery from DigitalGlobe? Do you want all of your data to be fed to you via a Web service from Denver or Rolla or Redmond or Redlands? Do you want there to be just a few large data vendors? Could they possibly have the expertise needed to create, maintain, serve and update the data you require, even with their partners? They hold the data, but we hold the dollars.

Published Friday, September 1st, 2006

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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