GIS, Location Technology and where they fit in the IT Value Chain

By Joe Francica

Over the course of the next five weeks, Directions Magazine will offer a perspective that we believe will shape future discussions of geographic information system implementation and enterprise adoption of location technology. For those of you who care to participate, I offer this space for your opinions. For those of you who want to hear the perspectives of those that run the companies from which you have or will purchase GIS, mapping and location platforms, please come to our conference on Location Technology and Business Intelligence.We will offer perspectives on "Competitive Intelligence" by senior contributing editor, Hal Reid, and David Sonnen will present a two-part "road map" for geospatial information technology, the complete results of which will be published in an IDC report and given to each attendee of our conference.

OK...let's begin.First, GIS and location technology is not an industry. We are a technology sector.Writing in Geospatial Solutions Magazine last month, Frederic Corle, president of the Spatial Technologies Industry Association, continually referred to the "spatial technology industry." If we continue to refer to ourselves like this, we'll remain a narrow segment of the IT marketplace.Spatial technology is comprised of a group of companies that sit within the value chain of the information technology (IT) infrastructure, just as databases and spreadsheets do.As such, we can offer tools and solutions to many components of IT.This is not just a semantic difference; this is fundamental to how we believe we can participate in a much broader segment of the IT pie.Location, as a primary element of corporate databases, permeates enterprise systems in human resources, finance, marketing, and logistics.

Second, we need to better understand where location technology can be leveraged.In the mid-nineties, the drop in the price of mass storage, CPU, and geospatial data, catapulted the adoption of single user desktop mapping and spatial analysis.As the nineties reached their climax, the technology was entering a new phase of adoption within the enterprise. Enterprise Resource Planning systems (ERP) began to integrate with GIS. But it wasn't exactly easy.Then the bottom fell out of the IT market. The lapse hurt but did not hinder adoption.In fact, during this time, other fundamental software development tools and industry specifications took hold to facilitate interoperability.Simple Object Access Protocols (SOAP) and Extensible Markup Language (XML) provided a better foundation to deliver web-based geospatial solutions.Today, location technology components (GIS, GPS, location servers and platforms, etc.) stand to offer other enterprise IT systems a "value-added" element, if companies see a viable return on investment and a demonstrable competitive advantage.Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Supply Chain Management (SCM), human resource systems, and others are using location as just another component of their architecture as they would a database or file management system.

Third.Although it is difficult to determine where exactly we are on the IT continuum, we have definitely left the desktop GIS/Mapping era behind. This is not to say that we will give up our client-side mapping system tomorrow.However, there is a decided movement toward server-side spatial processing and data management.This trend was brought on by many factors, not the least of which was the proliferation of the internet.As such, the location server platforms being launched by nearly every major mapping software provider signals a movement to support "location-based" systems in many IT sectors and the deployment of diverse applications in wireless mobile and internet-based solutions.It is a good thing by necessity.The richness of data available for processing involves substantial computing power.To integrate satellite, street, and demographical data, with their inherent spatial attribution, with other corporate information requires more power than what is available on the desktop, as incredibly potent as our desktops are these days.So, whereas some of our applications will process data on the client side, more and more information will be filtered through a server-based location platform.Geocoding, spatial analysis, and spatial statistics, are probably better suited for server-based applications.

All of this is to say that location technology is poised to spatially enable enterprise applications more than at any time in the past.The work of the OpenGIS Consortium (OGC) to help promote standards of interoperability is one of the keys that has helped drive the "mainstreaming" of location technology.Other factors are also at play.

Peter Batty, writing in GEOWorld in last month's Tech Time Column asked again, "Are we Mainstream Yet?" I think I answered this question in a feature I wrote for Business Geographics Magazine in 1998 (Corporate GIS: Spatial Information Technology Is Now in the Mainstream). In this article, I presented why the support of spatial primitives by Oracle Spatial and (at the time) Informix Datablades, represented the recognition by the larger IT companies (e.g.Oracle and Informix) that spatial information had invaded corporate databases to the point that it was essential to provide analytical support for georeferenced information.It was no longer acceptable for the chief information office (CIO) to ignore the investment in spatial information that companies were making, perhaps in response to the proliferation of desktop mapping as a proverbial "island of automation" that were so often mentioned because of the rise of desktop computing in the mid-nineties.I made this argument six years ago.Today, the improved functionality within the Oracle Enterprise database, as Oracle Locator and Oracle Spatial, and other databases like it, such as DB2 and Microsoft SQL Server, present the database administrator (DBA) with functionality that represent the next catalyst for enterprise computing of spatial information.Why? Because it will not be so much the trained GIS specialist that will catapult spatial analysis to the next level along the continuum.But, I believe it will be the multitude of smart DBAs who can tap the value of spatial functionality within the database or mid-tier server-based applications that will help proliferate a better understanding of spatial phenomenon, create new applications, and help to present a unique perspective on information to decision-makers.

Mr.Batty also noted the decline of ESRI on Software Magazine's list of top software companies suggests, "there's a fairly clear suggestion that the GIS industry (again, the use of "industry" I think is inappropriate) isn't growing as fast as other sectors of the software industry." I think this is one way to look at it but only because of the entire IT slump we have just come through.But, I also believe that this is one reason we can not "pigeon-hole" our technology sector as an "industry." Location technology is more widespread than just the narrow grouping of GIS companies. Look at the plethora of new startups in the mobile location technology, some of which have already gone through a "weeding out" during the LBS market debacle of 2001-2003.

But Mr.Batty has it correct when he recalls the statements of Doug Seaborn, who started GeoVision (a member of the Kinburn group of companies that included Tydac) many years ago, when he noted that "GIS would no longer be regarded as a separate discipline but would just be part of mainstream IT." It may have taken us a decade to get there, but that is exactly what is happening now.

Take, another example pointed out by Mr.Batty.As a portal, it is itself a destination.Yet, the technology powers 1400 websites for store locators and customer service mapping.But overtly, you may not recognize these websites as powered by a MapQuest, but merely as a "service" for customers looking for a retail outlet.Along with Microsoft's® MapPoint Web Services, we are looking at a new business model for deploying location information and services.

Before I close, it is important to note the comments of David Schell, president of the OGC.In an editorial on April 2, 2004 entitled, "Going to the Next Level" Mr.Schell said:

"The next level, then, refers to the question of whether market makers in the consortium will together follow through on their investment in building a broadly expandable technology infrastructure.What are the conditions for broad market adoption? The key requirement now is focused market development by the spatial technology leaders who command a huge base of users, as well as the database and IT infrastructure companies and integrators who serve major commercial and public sector clients.There is also a requirement for user organizations to pull the vendors and integrators in the right direction by demanding products that implement or are compliant with OpenGIS® Specifications.In market development as in specification development, going to the next level for all will require a shared vision and active participation by both users and providers."
This is a plea to the location technology sector to "get our collective act together" so that we can broaden the base of adoption, in all sectors of the IT infrastructure, not just our traditional markets and not just by companies who have dominated the existing location technology marketplace. And he went on to comment that:
"For example, we believe many markets beyond the traditional GIS market, such as remote sensing, LBS, RFID and Wi-Fi, all will require OpenGIS Specifications to reach their full market potential.But for the potential of these awakening markets to be fully realized, it will take more than just the few of us "singing the same song." The key players in these markets need to show their customers the benefits of interoperability. This seems to me what "going to a new level" is really all about."
Amen.And so, let the discussion begin.

Published Friday, April 9th, 2004

Written by Joe Francica

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