GITA Australia—One man’s view

By Simon Greener

The theme for this conference is [The] impact of critical infrastructure protection on operations. But the real sub-themes have been about infrastructure protection in the face of disaster, and the perennial question of value, which technology faces in any organization.The other sub-theme is integration and how to achieve it.There was also the usual me too presentations about using personal digital assistants (PDAs) in field data capture, or how a Web mapping product had been used in a business, and what vendor x did for me, and even vendors peddling their wares.The usual fare.But in the end, what is the real value of a conference like this one?

Let's see what we found at GITA Australia this year.

Doing something differently
It is good to put yourself in uncomfortable places that are out of the ordinary.There is a whole industry being built around extreme sports perhaps a new one could be created around extreme conferences. The idea is simple: you simply sign up to the service provider (providing your details, budget, number per year, etc.) whose system then chooses a conference at random and signs you up to attend it.You go to the conference and do nothing more than sit and listen and see if you can see how to apply what people are talking about to your normal day job. This, as in Mission Impossible, is your mission, should you chose to accept it.

So, why would you?

Because we all need to be challenged; and in being challenged and exposing ourselves to the views and opinions of others we can learn how to think outside the square (thanks, Google Maps!).We all need to test of our views, practices and opinions with others.Have we got it wrong? Are we getting the right information?

And, as I had not attended a GITA conference before, here was an opportunity to see what a different target audience the asset management fraternity were doing.Had anyone really found the new killer app? Was what Google are doing going to dominate talk? (Google was mentioned but didn't dominate.)

So, on to what I sat and heard.

Change and infrastructure protection
Some claim that the only constant in life is change.The geospatial industry is an industry being affected by change.Is this a function of life in any technology sector? What are the drivers for change? What is the relationship between terrorism, natural disaster and change?

Listening to, and speaking to, the presenters at this conference, I became aware that the infrastructure protection theme was really a variation on what drives change in any organization or across organizations.So, that old adage kept repeating itself inside my brain: the more things change, the more they stay the same!

In the end, a lot of what we hear about at conferences and at work is about change management: what brings it about.

Change management
Technology is an enabler of change but not its agent.As one very savvy marketing manager for a vendor said in conversation with me (paraphrase), technology has always had the capability to effect change for a long time, but technology is not the issue, change management within businesses is the issue. For any of us who have had to promote new technology within any organization, this is the perennial question his comments ring true.

What drives change?

Terrorism is, currently, the most effective agent for change we have seen in decades.When the question becomes one of life or death, nothing focuses the mind more and cuts through vested interests.Other than natural catastrophe (cf.Japanese Professor Shinoaki highlighted earthquakes as drivers for ROADIS in his keynote address) or aggressive external business competition (perhaps Google Earth vs.ArcGlobe), there really is, often, no other reason to change.If the profit margin is OK (it doesn't even have to be great, but OK), or you re the dominant player, then the imperative to change just isn't there.

When this situation exists, change won't come from within.Businesses will not make the hard decisions that are needed to reduce cost and increase profitability.So, I had to wait while my English soccer team, Sheffield Wednesday, was relegated from the Premier League, through the next league and into the relegation zone of the league below that (in three seasons), before the board of directors, the coaching staff, and half the team were sacked! The point at which accountability finally kicked in was when the line defining the need to survive finally crossed the line of vested interest.

But this is the idea to which my savvy marketing manager was alluding. Sure, the conference seems relevant infrastructure security in a time of terrorism, but what is really new about this?

Change seems to be an abstract concept: where's the evidence? The evidence comes in the form of the main, tangible issue spoken about at the conference, and that was the need to integrate organizations, systems and data.

Integration
Conference attendees spoke about the need for integration in order to protect the critical infrastructure.Effective emergency service response, nowadays, requires integrated data (e.g.common database and models) and systems (interoperability standards like the Open Geospatial Consortium s Web Map Service and Web Feature Service). However, while delegates could see the promised land that Professor Shinoaki demonstrated was possible in Japan (the need to rebuild utilities effectively after earthquake drives the need for integrated data and systems probably more than the strength of the Japanese culture), they also were frank in admitting that the impediment to data exchange is commercial self-interest.Private companies and utilities are resistant to doing this.So the requirement to do this has to come from without, not within.And so, like the problem of change, there has to be an over-riding need to change.Sad, but true, terrorism is the external driver of change.Government, in response to this, is legislating what self-interest resists you will exchange data and integrate your systems.

Again, my savvy marketing friend summed all this up neatly (paraphrase).There is nothing like a sinking ship to focus the mind. And so, there is nothing like the basic human instinct to survive which focuses the mind and steels the will.Terrorism has forced accountability.

In my view, integrated data is the first driver of integration.Once that is in place secure foundations the house can then be built.

Roland Slee's presentation on behalf of Oracle was aimed at showing that Oracle had the technology to host data and process integration once the will is there.And thus, it seemed to me to be an appropriate second presentation after Professor Shinoaki's, even if Oracle s is not the technology of choice of the majority of attendees.

Yet, for an old database boy like me, I really do think that all good integration starts and ends with data managed according to principles that don't see to have changed much in the past 20+ years.But, that is my prejudice showing.

The value of conferences like this one
I spoke to some attendees who had never attended this conference, or even any conference connected to the geospatial industry.Almost all these people said to me they found it beneficial because they got to see what others are doing.But do they? I got talking to one first time attendee at lunch and asked him about his particular work and industry (a water authority in Victoria).Once I had worked out what his employer did and what technology he used, I then went on to ask him about the neighboring water authorities.Most used the same technology as his authority, but one didn't.That authority had recently gone out to tender and had been won by a competitor and, upon being asked, was perplexed as to why.I pointed out that the vendor who supplied the technology had a stand here and suggested he take the opportunity to go to their stand and kick the tires of their offerings and find out why his neighbor went with something different.I hope he did, because this is why we should attend these conferences.

Networking
So, it seems to me, that conferences like these are not about the technology or the theme but more about the opportunity to network.That remains a pretty good reason for going.However, I am not convinced that people do network outside their social group.Whether that is defined as their current vendor for example does an Autodesk user ever take the opportunity to go and talk to the ESRI people on their stand, or the Intergraph people? Do we so define ourselves by our herd that we won't look outside the square unless change is forced upon us? I suffer a bit from this, but even so, I would rather attend a conference where I was exposed to people not in my industry than keep going to conferences like this year in year out.

Networking, vendors and value
Networking goes further.I spoke with more than one vendor who said that the value really wasn't there for them because they found there were better ways to talk to customers.In fact, one vendor perhaps being honest rather than cynical said that the only reason they attended was simply because their competitors were there!

The individual and the conference
GITA represents utility companies and their staffs.What my (cynical) vendor friend was saying was that the vendor/company relationship is not really worked out at a conference like this one.Also, I am convinced that the professional needs of the individual are not being met by business associations and their conferences.Certainly no individual could afford to attend such a conference at the prices charged, never mind the individual membership fees.In fact, I would argue that no one is offering a conference that individuals could afford to attend, and so I would like to see something like an Association of GeoSpatial Professionals body being formed that directly spoke to the individual.But that's for another day.

So did I get anything out of this conference? Yes I did.But you might be surprised to learn that it wasn't as cerebral as the above discussion about integration and change: it was an interestingly personal experience.Because I finally realized why the last eight years (with my ex-employer) have been so painful: I have been the agent of change at my employer; a disturber of the peace. And it has hurt.

Will I go again? Sure, but not every year.Because, like my savvy marketing manager friend, I think that it is good to go every few years to remind ourselves that the more things change, the more the stay the same.


Published Monday, September 5th, 2005

Written by Simon Greener



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