In an interview with Editor in Chief Joe Francica, James Cutler, CEO of emapsite, discussed some of the challenges he’s faced over the last 10 years of evolving his data as a service business model.
Directions Magazine (DM): Tell us about emapsite and its evolution toward providing data as a service (DaaS) to its clients. Did your clients push you in this direction for an "on demand" model, and what were the barriers in providing this type of service?
James Cutler (JC): emapsite.com Limited has become very much a part of the location content provisioning infrastructure and de facto provider of digital mapping to professionals since pioneering the era of application service provision from our launch in 2000. Founded by Justin Saunders and me, both of us already veterans from the world of GIS consultancy, emapsite was predicated on the certain knowledge that users were frustrated by the difficulties of accessing digital geographic content. At the time of the “dot com” bubble, all the indicators were that technology breakthroughs would provide the tools to build services that would address this structural weakness. It was clear that this convergence would bring new efficiencies and cost savings from using the data, and drive wider awareness and adoption of location content by professionals across all sectors. This vision has been entirely borne out by events and developments in the intervening years. Broadband swiftly became ubiquitous in the early 2000s, content owners accelerated down the path of digitalization and area-based charging models, and then came Google. Google’s entry into the geobrowser world made explaining “what we do” in the world of GIS far easier and in doing so, opened up new markets.
These were the early days of DaaS when users were just pleased to be able to licence and obtain data within a few minutes of defining their area of interest on a map interface. emapsite brought new flexibility with feature-based pricing for vector data, low minimum order pricing, choice of formats for all major GIS and CAD software, and a single source for more than 30 different content owners.
While the establishment of the Open Geospatial Consortium’s (OGC) standards delivered a theoretical framework for rapid advances toward a decentralized/hosted/outsourced infrastructure, the prosaic reality within the GIS/CAD community was, and to a certain extent still is, one of inertia and “possessiveness” – of the “it’s my data and I want it with me” kind. Add to that the relatively slow integration of suitable interfaces by the dominant software providers, concerns about bandwidth hogging limited internal communications architectures and, in the UK at least, a disconnect between those standards and the demands placed by licensors on technology providers and licensees, and it is easy to understand how data on demand or as a service has remained more conference gossip item and marketing meme than widely adopted approach.
The “GI industry” has striven for years to position location as the great integrating facet of the digital world and how place should play a central role in the enterprise. However, in frequently doing so from a map-centric perspective this ambition has arguably been thwarted. While everything does happen somewhere, establishing this sensibility outside of the professional map user has required determination, diligence in aligning content, technologies and business cases, and a change in perspective for both purveyors and procurers of location content and services.
As an established content platform, emapsite has been evolving the content and services on the platform and our relationships beyond the realm of GI to help deliver on the value of location intelligence to the enterprise. Often it has been as much a case of customers being pulled, or at least informed and educated by the evangelists, as it has been of them pushing. But we are now reaching a tipping point. There is both understanding and expectation on both “sides” that there is more to digital mapping and other location content than a map extract on the C: drive!
DM: One of the most challenging parts of providing data as a service from multiple providers is making the licensing agreement understandable. Have you written a standard license template for providers to use? Please explain how licensing the data works best.
JC: In the UK and many other markets, the majority of content owners for the high value data sought after by our customers have an established licensing regime. Typically this will set a level playing field for value adding resellers and distributors with a charging model deemed appropriate to the type of usage, sometimes called “Ramsay pricing.” While there are mechanisms by which suggestions can be made for modifications to the licensing regime (for example to accommodate new business models or new means of distribution or consumption), these are sadly, if necessarily, subject to inertia, risk analysis and so on by the content owner. But they can and do change. By contrast, many of the smaller, specialist content owners are more open to suggestion and guidance on how they could and should license their data. To this end we have created a licensing template to help streamline the go-to-market process for minor, specialist or niche content owners.
Open data - the fact of, the mass of it, the direction of it - brings with it a string of new challenges and opportunities. These datasets are usually subject to some form of open or share alike licensing to facilitate wider re-use, in the belief that somehow such an approach will solve current economic problems. There is little or no evidence to provide any insight into the reality of this assumption; it is rather a “Field of Dreams” proposition, an act of faith that somehow a thousand tax paying roses will bloom on the back of open data. We share the dream but are more sanguine about the prospects; key reports in this area have failed to fully take on board issues of quality, value, price elasticity and dataset utility, to name a few. This has not stopped the ever spiraling size of the supposed net economic benefit, now £16bn according to the UK Cabinet Office, admittedly including personal health data in its “equation.” Given the inherent commoditization and me-too businesses that will follow and notwithstanding the failure rate of start-ups and the propensity to seek the lowest tax environment and maximum subsidy (shortly to be available from the Open Data Institute/Technology Strategy Board), it is unrealistic to set the expectations so high. Freemium models of consultancy, imposed scarcity or genuine value businesses may well deliver unspecified and acclaimed Rumsfeldian benefits (the unknown unknowns) to the very content owners that created and released the data.
We are regularly regaled with allegations of inefficiency, poor productivity, lousy performance, etc. within the public sector (and large corporations too). Now we are to believe that the private sector will sell services to the public sector based on data already paid for by the public sector. The fear must be that data liberalization, a touchstone of the transparency and accountability agendas, will prove to be anything but, for the economic transformation agenda.
This is a tricky circle to square but mindful of the epithet that “the best thing that will be done with your data will be done by somebody else,” the genie is some way out of the bottle. Businesses such as ours are ideally positioned to leverage our track record in identifying, sourcing, assimilating and thence exposing, publishing and/or linking to the location elements inherent in such “big data,” be they open or otherwise.
As the scale of the potential of location opportunity dawns on integrator, technology provider and enterprise alike, so established, proven service providers such as emapsite - that have long experience in integrating and making seamless the data and their licensing, access, management, maintenance and delivery for high value content - are being recognized and rewarded for our prescience and platforms.
DM: What do clients like most about the way you have constructed your Web portal to inscribe the data extents to identify the region for which your clients want to buy data?
JC: There’s always the danger of second guessing what your customers might actually say! However, feedback from customers is what underpins the evolution of our portal; we consider the very fact that customers are willing to give feedback a tribute in itself to the utility of our services and how we value them. We long ago set the benchmark by which users inscribe their area of interest and are then able to choose the output format, select the licence and download the data. We have continued to raise the bar over the years and are the sole provider of a string of in-line services for managing those data, who accesses them, how they access them and the type of services they can avail as a result. For instance:
ContractorLink is our agenda-changing toolset that accepts the challenge of widening access to geographic data already licensed by government by opening up on-demand access to those data to the entirety of government’s contracting community, at no cost to government. Something like one-third of all local authorities in England signed up within a few weeks of the launch earlier this year, and they and their contractors are delighted.
Then there is GeoLink, a content management interface for all customers, bringing clarity of licensing, oversight of procurement and visibility of costs, all on a project by project basis.
And, longest established of our services but garnering the most praise from users of late is our plan creation interface, Plans Ahead. Customers can upload their own data, view them against a choice of backdrops, select what size of print or plan they desire, annotate and title accordingly and have the result on their or their colleagues’ desktops in minutes. Plans Ahead is a genuine crowd pleaser for the home user and among the micro businesses that play key roles in the land and property sector. Be it new build, renovation, extension or improvement, partly thanks to our accreditation on the UK’s planning portal, the automated geolocation element is bubbling across the mobile field worker world. So many activities require field workers to document what they are doing/seeing and where. Plans Ahead is a tool that allows this to be done to scale, on site, against the highest quality digital mapping backdrop during the visit, and for the resulting plan to be easily updated and shared with future site-visiting professionals.
Streetworks, insurance claims, site investigation, market research, asset maintenance, field surveys and more, all require location-centric context sensitive tools, for capturing site intelligence or for subsequent auditing, commissioning, overseeing or monitoring and evaluation. Plans Ahead provides the perfect interface and choice of content.
All of these and other interfaces are based on an approach to software engineering aligned to the principles of a service oriented architecture in that they consist of interoperable, standards-based reusable software components, under the emapsite inside brand. Not only do these services provide the basis for our own website but are available in various guises as discrete services for integrators and others to consume and/or embed in their own solutions. It is only with this approach that location content can begin to be of utility and impact on a broader front than the GIS, CAD and related markets.
So, in summary, what our customers seem to like is that in an era of big data, emapsite provides the tools to easily access them. Further, in providing for easy curation of the diversity of sources, simplified management of licensed data and a suite of interfaces both within the website and as Web services, we meet or exceed our customers’ requirements.
DM: Do you envision integrating your platform with geospatial software solutions?
JC: During the last decade the smart players in the geospatial software solutions space have recognized that reusable toolsets that can be configured to provide vertical market solutions - be it for insurance, local authorities, homeland security, oil and gas, land and property or utilities - can begin to extend the world of opportunity for location data. Gradually geospatial software components are being subsumed into wider business workflows and I think this trend will continue. As content platform our services are already consumable from within all the major GIS and CAD vendor desktop interfaces so the integration you speak of is already an established practice. As data itself comes full circle, driven by the big and open data trends as well as by the striving for value creation from these torrents of data, we are seeing the re-ignition of interest in data as a service from global software brands from within the geospatial community, but also more broadly. This is very much a conundrum for the vendors as, while their interfaces consume data and their schemas can help manage those data, there is less of a history in building and maintaining the data platforms themselves. And while it might look like smart vertical integration from one angle, the market may yet see it as a late, defensive, proprietary play that limits extensibility, flexibility, reusability and workflow integration. For some these are early days; for emapsite, this is what we’ve always done, it’s what we’ve proven to be very good at doing and supporting. What’s more we’re entirely agnostic as to the software that consumes our services. That’s a very appealing package if you’re anywhere but inside the narrow GIS world view.
DM: DaaS is evolving rapidly. What do you see on the horizon, technologically or otherwise, that will support adoption by more customers?
JC: Let’s agree that high value datasets will continue to be framed by license agreements. Let’s further accept that in some way or other these agreements require solutions that interface with or consume those data to limit that consumption to the terms of the licence under which those data are being consumed. These terms include constraints of time, space and budget (i.e. this is what we’ve licensed, this is how long we’re entitled to access to it and these are the payment/charging terms). If this is the case, then the very clear requirement is for mechanisms that allow it to happen, easily, seamlessly, extensibly and with clarity. For a while, Geospatial Digital Rights Management (GeoDRM) seemed to be on everyone’s lips but has failed to filter out past the “deep GI” community and has little or no traction. Recent entries into the market have either brought new attention to previously available datasets or attempted to stimulate data creators and content owners to seek out new markets for those data. As to whether adding the data as a service element to such offerings is going to shed more light than heat remains to be seen.
More significantly the database, storage and business intelligence vendors have been taking GI very seriously over the last few years. The evolution is happening at the database level, potentially sidelining both software vendors and DaaS vendors as data assimilation and interrogation becomes a service call rather than a GIS interface. That raises major challenges for a variety of players across the geospatial service spectrum. This decade has already seen the emergence of SaaS responses to these changes. Think Socium from 1Spatial and eSpatial’s On Demand GIS offering, as well as Google’s nascent Google Earth Builder.
Smart customers and integrators are increasingly alert to the challenges of big data, the significance of location in deriving value from those data and the smorgasbord of options available to them for accessing the data and functionality required. Open source, SaaS and DaaS models would today seem to afford the flexibility, capability, longevity and utility, at content, functional and commercial levels, that meet these requirements. emapsite has been at the forefront of this wave for a decade, is seeing more customers and integrators every day and anticipates a tipping point this decade when operational decision making will have embedded within it both geographic data and related analytics. Will there be a map? There might be…..