Guest Editorial: Too Big to Succeed

By Joel Campbell

For 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

Written by Joel Campbell

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