Guest Editorial: Too Big to Succeed
the past several years, the phrase "Too Big to Fail" has echoed
throughout our vocabulary as it relates to banks and investments
houses. While I am no expert on Wall Street, economics or the
intricacies of Credit Default Swaps, I can tell you in the geospatial
industry we are facing our own challenges. This is what I like to call
"Too Big to Succeed."
Since the introduction of MapQuest in 1997, we have come to depend upon
Internet mapping for all things related to street navigation. The old
AAA or Rand McNally map books and strip maps have become a thing of the
past. Oh, so 20th century! Of course, I can say with great pleasure I
am happy I no longer have to figure out how to refold one of those darn
maps. In any event, from online directions to personal navigation
devices (PNDs) we now depend upon technology to locate addresses and
find our way from place to place. Humankind has been doing this since
they first etched the lay of the land onto clay tablets in 2300 BC.
Advancements in the use of geospatial data and technology have put the
spotlight on the industry we work in and created new opportunities for
data companies, software companies and geospatially trained
professionals. While all of this has been great for promoting business
and careers, I can't help but be bothered by the lack of real
understanding about what is happening to the accuracy and currency of
data, and by extension, the world around us.
I recently relocated to Atlanta, Georgia, joining ERDAS as the new
company president. After several weeks in a temporary living
arrangement, I decided to rent a townhouse close to my office as an
interim step to buying a house. All of us understand the importance of
getting to know our neighborhoods, traffic patterns, social
connections, shopping opportunities and communities in general.
Understanding our surroundings is a critical step to making a
significant investment in a new home. With that in mind, the rental
approach worked for me. Given the long working hours, being close to
the office made perfect sense.
What happened next has made me appreciate the shortcomings of the
relatively new entrants to the geospatial stage, despite their size and
reach. With my first furniture delivery, the driver from the local
furniture store could not find me on his PND. I spent 10 minutes on the
phone, lacking real local knowledge, attempting to provide directions
to my new home. Despite the obstacles, he finally made it. I was
relieved that I had absorbed enough local knowledge and familiarity
with major landmarks to get him from point A to point B, namely, my
house. However, I did find it strange that his PND was not able to find
me. While my townhouse is at least two years old, he may have had an
older unit without a recent update. After the incident, I let it go and
did not pay much more attention to it, until it happened again.
A couple of weeks later, I had scheduled a new washer and dryer for
delivery. The dispatcher from the big box store called to clarify my
location, and I once again found myself providing turn-by-turn
directions. Of course, I had a few more weeks of local knowledge and
all things being equal, this time it was no big deal. This same movie
played over and over for the next several months and I chalked it up to
bad data in PNDs. Of course, I was way too busy with the new job to do
any meaningful research. After all, the electric company knew how to
find me, as did the gas company, my DSL provider and anyone else who
had provided services to my new home. I even browsed the county
GIS website to see my parcel and the streets around it, convincing
myself that this was only a PND problem.
What happened next was the deal breaker. After a tough week at work, I
decided to call my local franchised pizza place to have some dinner
delivered. And you guessed it; they could not find me on any map. Once
again I spent the obligatory 10 minutes giving driving directions. (I
am actually getting pretty good at this in case you are listening,
OnStar.) After I ate, I decided to surf the Web to check the major
mapping sites to see why my address seems to be unfindable. I tried
MapQuest, Bing Maps, Google Maps, even OpenStreetMap.orgOpenStreet.Org.
No luck. I am astonished that in an area like suburban Atlanta, in a
neighborhood more than two years old, these "big" guys in our industry
have such obvious holes in their data. It was especially troubling
knowing that the Gwinnett County GIS not only has current data, but
that they are online and easily accessible. If I am encountering this
in suburban Atlanta, one can only imagine what it must be like in rural
Kansas, Iowa or New Mexico, or even more sparsely populated states like
North and South Dakota. And one must wonder about the rate of driving
errors made in responding to 911 or other emergency calls.
Now, I will be the first to admit that I use Google Maps or Bing Maps
almost daily. I find their ease-of-use refreshing, not to mention the
complex analysis I can accomplish by looking for directions or points
of interest with a simple query in the search box. But, it seems like
we have all gotten distracted by these shiny new toys over the past
several years and have somehow forgotten what the geospatial business,
our business, is all about. Let's face it, remote sensing and GIS are
all about change; measuring it, monitoring it and mapping it, as my
friend Mark Brender [of GeoEye] likes to say. Whether it is new roads
and neighborhoods created for development, or natural phenomenon like
earthquakes (and we have seen a few of late) or droughts, landslides or
forest fires. The Earth is constantly changing, and our industry has a
40-year legacy of attempting to understand and document these changes.
We use sophisticated measurement devices; satellite and airborne
sensors, GPS and survey instruments, permanently installed devices like
stream gauges and increasingly, laser scanners mounted on anything that
moves (and some things that don't). We also use sophisticated software
tools from the likes of ERDAS, Esri, Intergraph, BAE and others to
document changes, model them and analyze their meaning. At a local
level, we do this with amazing accuracy and timeliness to support
various activities. In many cases, we are even doing a great job
coordinating these activities at a regional, state or national level,
albeit not quite as timely. Yet there is a major disconnect between the
work performed in the geospatial industry and the shiny tools that
capture everyone's attention (like Google Maps or Bing Maps). I
appreciate that they are trying to provide maps of the world, and that
is a big undertaking given all of the change that happens every day. I
certainly am not faulting them for providing a service that is useful
to millions of people otherwise not exposed to geospatial concepts and
data, myself included, and it's free. But I have come to the conclusion
that maybe these popular mapping sites could be "Too Big to Succeed."
While many industry analysts and pundits are constantly talking or
writing about the next big innovation or initiative from the large
mapping sites, I still have to struggle to get my pizza delivered.
Maybe I am being too impatient, but my point is simply this: the
geospatial industry is data driven. As an industry, we should demand
more rigor in the completeness of data on "all" mapping sites. This is
important if such sites are to be relevant and sustainable. As an
industry, we provide a valuable service to everyday folks who need to
understand their communities, governments that need to manage their
jurisdictions and businesses that want to analyze their markets and
future opportunities. Geospatial technologies are tools to enable us to
make better decisions. There is, however, a disconnect between the
changes that happen daily and how these changes are captured and
exposed to those who want or need to know about them. As an industry,
we need to be cognizant of this disconnect and look for ways to work
together to plug the gaps.
I can go to any automatic bank teller on the planet, and it knows how
to access my bank records in a way to approve or deny a withdrawal,
despite my ever-changing bank balance. Farmers grow crops of many
varieties, and yet somehow when I want fresh strawberries, they always
seem to be available in my local grocery store. So why is it that when
a street changes in suburban Atlanta, it takes two years (and counting)
to see the results in the largest of mapping outlets?
As an industry of producers, suppliers and users of geospatial
information, we need to rededicate ourselves to solving the "supply
chain" problem this disconnect represents. The tools and methods exist
and we have some of the brightest people on the planet engaged.
Whatever institutional barriers and other roadblocks are getting in the
way need to be dealt with, and soon. The amount of change is increasing
exponentially, and the amount of data being captured and documented is
growing at a blinding pace. Besides, I want to get my pizza on a Friday
night without trying to convince a driver my road does exist and I can
get him there! Let's be mindful to not create an industry that is "Too
Big to Succeed." We have way too much riding on it.
Ed. note: Bing has since updated its maps - while Joel's street still does not show up, his address is now found and is routable.
Published Friday, July 2nd, 2010