Geospatial Perspectives on the Global Economic Meltdown: Industry Executives Offer Advice

By Joe Francica

Should you invest or pull back on your investments in geospatial technology and mobile location-based technology? Do you look beyond 2009 or take advantage of an opportunity not seen in anyone's "business" lifetime? We asked a number of executives throughout the geospatial and LBS technology sector for their perspective, and to answer this question: "What specific advice regarding geospatial technology would you offer to users and potential buyers during this down economy?" Their answers may surprise you.

Gil CastleGilbert Castle, Founder and CEO, Castle Consulting

When I joined one of the first GIS companies three decades ago, the technology was in its infancy. Everyone was having a great time developing applications in city planning, natural resource management, etc., but we were constrained by the software and hardware available at the time. For example, polygon overlay had just been invented, a removable disk drive (the size of a large hat box) held 250k, and monitors weren't yet in color.

Within five years the opposite was true, that is, software and hardware were advancing faster than our ability to create applications. The same is true today, and may forever be true. Stated differently, we have more GIS tools than we know what to do with - and not enough applications.

Accordingly, my advice regarding geospatial technology is to identify applications (that may already exist in one form or another, or may not yet exist) that have excellent business potential. I happen to enjoy start-up opportunities within an established company or funded by venture capitalists, but I'm using "business potential" in a broader way. An app - developed internally or externally - that significantly increases the efficiency of an existing process, or generates valuable products/services not previously available, or otherwise becomes a tool that clearly benefits an organization, will be embraced regardless of whether the organization is a company, government agency, non-profit, academic institution or other entity.   

The hard part is selecting the app. You have to adopt a very disciplined, business plan-like approach in order to funnel down 100 ideas to 10 really interesting prospects and finally to the one most promising app. That app then has to be executed in a cost-effective, timely, well-marketed manner, very possibly in addition to your regular duties.

In the end though, the world gains an app, and the geospatial professional enjoys both bragging rights and - most importantly - full employment!

Craig HarperCraig Harper, CEO, Apisphere

We're on the cusp of a new generation of location-based applications and services that will radically change the way people work with mobile devices including cell phones, smartphones and mobile broadband-powered laptop computers. These innovations will lead to more efficient workflows, faster decision making, and cost savings that are crucial to maximizing business opportunities and maintaining leaner budgets in these tough economic times.

Most mobile messaging models are still basically "one-dimensional" in nature and have essentially changed very little during the past decade of rapid mobile subscriber growth. Users receive messages at a time and place that is not always of their own choosing, without context, or in a place where they can't efficiently act upon them.

We send and forget emails, play telephone tag, and save voice messages for later reference. We waste time, miss opportunities and work too hard to actively retrieve the information we need rather than having information come to us when, where and how we need it. That's all about to change, and the change couldn't come at a more opportune time.

Apisphere has coined the term "location-smart messaging" to describe a new generation of mobile applications that will expand the real-time, relevant connections and communications between friends, family and co-workers. Just as Web 2.0 transformed the Internet from static to active, essentially breathing life into lifeless pages, Apisphere's location-smart messaging aims to transform mobile messaging from one- to four-dimensional.

The main difference between location-smart messaging and standard location-based service solutions is that standard solutions aren't overly smart. In other words, they can't make sense of the information they deliver in terms of what it means to the user or recipient of that information. Most LBS information is static overall which ends up costing users and businesses millions of dollars annually in wasted time.

Of course, we want services that tell us how things are (weather, news), where things are (maps, directions) and what everyone is up to (Twitter, Jaiku). But why stop there? If personalization is combined with location-smarts and then integrated with pattern recognition, mobile technology becomes more intelligent and resourceful. If the combination is just right, it's possible for an individual user to anticipate future events and make better choices that have more positive outcomes.

In 2009, expect to see new location-smart services that are fully integrated with the applications you use everyday such as Microsoft Outlook and Salesforce CRM. These new location-smart applications may help users find the least congested commute, warn about a snow storm, prompt users to update a report after a customer visit or even encourage people to leave on time for a flight, which all contributes back to a healthy bottom line for a business.

The best advice for LBS users during the rough times ahead is to start thinking about LBS differently and look at ways to integrate this upcoming generation of services into workflows and day-to-day operations to take advantage of this new realm of possibilities.

Dale LutzDale Lutz, Vice President of Software Development and Co-founder, Safe Software

During this economic downturn, organizations will be focused more than ever on achieving their corporate objectives as efficiently as possible. As geospatial technology can significantly improve productivity and provide users with the information they need to make informed decisions, these tools will play an important role in helping organizations to accomplish more with fewer resources. By having access to the right geospatial technology - whether that means investing in new tools or optimizing the use of existing ones - organizations will be able to operate more efficiently and better manage their performance during the current economic situation.

Bryan MisteleBryan Mistele, Co-founder, President and CEO, INRIX

Embrace technology. Whether the economic outlook is positive or not so positive, technology can help you in many ways and in virtually all aspects of your daily life. Certainly, as the economic outlook has a big question mark next to it, the time is now to embrace the technologies that can improve your productivity and save you time and money. With the scores of innovations and the growing consumer and business acceptance of technologies like location enabled services it is more imperative than ever to take advantage of these advances. Location based services that help to navigate the geospatial world in which we live directly give the user an opportunity to save time and money and will become more relevant in the future uncertain economic environment.
Geospatial navigation efficiencies can be achieved in many ways but in all cases can improve productivity and save time and money. The average American spends half of his time in the car each week fighting some sort of traffic congestion. At INRIX our mission is to reduce traffic congestion through better information delivered to drivers.  We are achieving this through providing real-time and predictive traffic data to navigation devices. A further enhancement of our routing technology now enables a driver to take advantage of our third generation routing engine that delivers a Smart Route based on our traffic data. Even the most fuel efficient cars are not fuel efficient when stuck in traffic.
Technology can improve efficiencies and with the growing number of cars and trucks navigating the highways and bi-ways it is imperative to take advantage of our ability to better navigate the geospatial environment. Yes, embrace technology in good times and in bad.

Steven RamageSteven Ramage, Business Development Director, 1Spatial

I would turn this question on its head and actually ignore the technology to start with and look at what organizations could and should be doing, irrespective of the economic downturn. Therefore I would reword the question as: "How can we make best use of our investment in geospatial data, software and training, and undertake continual reviews to ensure a satisfactory return on that investment?"
If you are in a position to understand your key capital expenditure or operating expenses relating to these elements, or at least know where to obtain that information internally, then you will know where and how you can tighten your financial belt. This represents good business practice regardless of the economic conditions. Once you understand the costs and benefits associated with your geospatial assets, then you can make informed decisions about more effective use of the available technology.
Another approach to understanding your assets is being able to measure the quality of what you have; in today's business this usually relates to a large investment in digital geographic information. If you can use geospatial technology to assess, measure and report on data quality, this will help you make informed business decisions in any economic climate. It will also help with continual reviews in terms of your organization's investment.
As an example, data integration or data migration projects - pulling together data from multiple sources or upgrading your base reference mapping - can be costly. Establishing the state of the data from the outset, and providing a quantitative assessment of data quality will help you estimate the scale of the project and whether or not it is feasible in the allocated time frame and budget. There can be many hidden costs associated with using geospatial technology if the data are of poor quality. These costs are incurred as a result of necessary tasks, such as extensive manual data correction, data translation and transformation, sending data offshore and going through a long-winded, costly process to send data back and forth between third-party contractors.
For many organizations data quality is a one-off activity and this can be very time consuming and costly. It is also a short-term fix since "data creep" allows errors and problems back into the data. I would advocate that the "forgotten common sense" of doing things correctly the first time is more important than ever, given the current economic climate. This includes using geospatial technology to address data quality as an iterative process. Doing so should help organizations with their business analysis, planning and decision making.
To summarize, across the mainstream IT sector it's all about the data and leveraging and sharing those data to make better decisions and have a real economic impact on the business bottom line. From a technology standpoint there is a visible move toward component architectures (Web services) to allow efficient joining or coupling and reuse of existing systems. These are producing new and more relevant business workflows without the widespread and costly re-engineering of IT systems and a growing number of organizations in the geospatial sector are also embracing this trend.

Bob SamborskiBob Samborski, Executive Director, the Geospatial Information & Technology Association (GITA)

It's no secret that the infrastructure and the geospatial industry have taken a huge economic hit this fall, which has been preceded by horrific statistics about the crumbling infrastructure. GITA is in great shape to weather the tough times, and I am positive and hopeful for the future of geospatial solutions for infrastructure. I encourage geospatial practitioners to be hopeful and ready for things to turn around, as it may happen sooner than some people expect.

Recent headlines have supported GITA's optimism. President-elect Barack Obama has unveiled a plan to launch a massive infrastructure program to help turn the economy around and provide jobs. It's been 50 years since the U.S. has seen plans to invest such a large amount of money in the infrastructure. The stock market may be in a shambles, but this news was enough to make companies associated with infrastructure and large construction projects feel more positive about the near term.

With that amount of money funneling through the infrastructure, there will be competition. These headlines are a call to action for user organizations to build solid business cases for geospatial technology and show how geographic information systems and other solutions can enable significant and cost-effective progress. Beyond technology, knowing the right people who can get things done is absolutely crucial. Building a network of vendors and other user organizations, whether local or international, is a critical component of a "go forward" plan.

Obviously, everyone is somewhat limited financially right now, but the return on investment for getting involved far outweighs the consequences of not learning and not being prepared. We need a solid infrastructure to attract investment and remain competitive globally, while maintaining the standard of living that we have come to expect. It may be tempting to hunker down, but people need to stay in tune with the industry, and building a consensus on addressing our infrastructure challenges and then leveraging geospatial technology to solve these problems should be a common goal.

Gary SmithGary Smith, Principal, Green Mountain Geographics

I think we need to concentrate on those applications where GIS can really be of service, save money and contribute to the economic recovery. Key areas include:
  1. Infrastructure - roads, bridges, new high speed rail locations, etc.
  2. Energy - wind turbine sighting, solar sighting, electrical distribution, etc.
  3. Global health and food production - pandemic monitoring and planning, drought and famine monitoring and mitigation, local food production and distribution
 Local food production opportunities need our attention. Why do I see ads for California milk in Vermont? Can it really be less expensive? That being said, I think the only crop in New England for which we are self sufficient is cranberries. GIS can show these opportunities. We need to make sure future agricultural policies take advantage of GIS technology. GIS folks need to speak up and make sure the general public knows what we can do. We need to talk with legislators and policy makers, befriend the media. Sit quietly, and we will suffer. Speak up and we can have a serious impact. Let's be creative!
Finally (and unfortunately), we cannot lose sight of Homeland Security issues and planning. Hopefully we will see serious 3D plume analysis come to the forefront in GIS, but this is going to mean having the 3D environment ready to go. Right now, we don't... We need to be looking ahead and advocate for our needs.

Dean StoeckerDean Stoecker, President and CEO, SRC

Savvy business leaders will invest in contemporary geospatial tools in tough economic times like these because they realize that speed of spatial analytics (for building, delivering and calibrating site location models, as just one of many examples) really does matter when isolating opportunities and mitigating risks. Today, these contemporary tools do exist and are hundreds, if not thousands, of times faster than traditional map-based GIS packages. If you had a geospatial technology that did the work of five people, investing would be a simple decision.

Published Tuesday, January 6th, 2009

Written by Joe Francica

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