Spatial Information Management (SIM) - Then, Now, Next

By David Sonnen


In June this year Ordnance Survey, the British national mapping agency, kicked off their annual partner conference with the theme, "Old Roots, New Shoots".OS called for their partners to innovate to build new business on top of the huge geospatial resource that OS created over the last 200 years.Their theme acknowledges the deep changes and opportunities that face the spatial information management (SIM) industry today.

Newly recast, Directions Media and their new Locations Intelligence Magazine responds to those same deep changes and opportunities.They are a bright, new look at a radically changed landscape.

Looking around, the evidence of change is striking: Google Earth; Microsoft's MapPoint.Net; O'Reilly's Where 2.0; Intergraph's reorganization around "spatial information management"; Oracle Locator and Spatial; ESRI's ArcGIS 9.x; US Census' MAF/TIGER integration; new platforms, new users and new vendors.These changes are so diverse, they don't even seem related.But, they are.

To understand what's going on, it's useful to look back a little, say to the 15th century.It was then that printing presses made maps widely available and relatively inexpensive.Scribes and artists that had been cranking out a few fanciful maps per year found themselves in a whole new world.But, the European Age of Exploration was well under way and cheaper maps were a good thing.

In the early 16th century, Gerardus Mercator, a Flemish mathematician and cartographer, developed a cylindrical projection that made maps much more useful for navigation and helped trade flourish across Europe and the New World.Maps became a critical economic and military resource.

Maps became increasingly accurate and factual during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries with the application of scientific methods.Countries began national mapping programs.Nonetheless, much of the world was poorly known until the widespread use of aerial photography following World War II.
With aerial photography, cartographers could combine surveyed observations with remotely sensed data to produce accurate, factual and reasonably current maps.Those maps, still laboriously produced and printed on paper, became increasingly critical for business and defense.Because the mapmaking process got cheaper and more reliable, maps became a lot more plentiful.Worldwide, organizations numbering in the tens of thousands spend literally hundreds of billions of dollars creating and maintaining huge paper map collections.

Geographic information systems (GIS) emerged in the 1970s and '80s and, like the printing press, changed cartography forever.In paper cartography, the map is both the database and the display of geographic information.For GIS, the database, analysis, and display become physically and conceptually separate aspects of geographic data.This makes geographic data much more useful for many more applications.

The '80s and '90s saw massive map conversion projects as organizations discovered the power and efficiency of GIS.They eventually converted their paper maps to digital form.These conversion projects funded the expansion of GIS into a billion dollar software industry and transformed the practice of cartography into an almost completely digital form.

During the '80s and 90's GIS developed into an industry, complete with well-defined, formal relationships between the various players. The dominant architecture was a vertically-integrated, proprietary, complete solution stack.It was through these formal relationships and technology stacks that GIS laid the foundation for the current evolutionary step.

For the geospatial industry, the current evolutionary step is as significant as the advent of the printing press, Mercator's projection, or GIS.Ed Parsons, CTO at Ordnance Survey, illustrated the change as shown in Figure 1 (See nearby - click for larger image).

In Ed's illustration, geospatial data, not the map, has become the raw resource for creating location-specific information.This makes a lot of sense.Geospatial data is no longer the exclusive province of specialists like cartographers.Increasingly, location-specific data is created by a growing range of technologies: satellites, airborne scanners, GPS, RFID, WLAN, cellular networks, geocoding software and networked sensors, to name a few.

Increasingly, the broad IT infrastructure handles location-specific data in open, standard ways.Companies like Oracle, Microsoft, IBM, SAP, Google, MapQuest and Yahoo are making location an integral part of their platforms.Open standards and Open Source are making geospatial technology and data cheap, standard and available to hundreds of thousands of developers.Increasingly capable Service-oriented Architectures (SOA) break down integration barriers and drop the cost of entry for new entrepreneurs.Because of its inherent ability to respond to changing requirements, SOA is now a survival skill for users and information technology vendors alike.

These are big changes! And, like most big changes, the process involves what your dentist might call "discomfort".The central problem is simple: the formal relationships between players and the vertical technology stacks familiar in GIS simply don't work anymore.In SOA environments, formal relationships between technology owners need not be in place -- Users mix loosely coupled components as needed.So relationships that do exist tend to be contentious with aggressive jockeying for industry influence and position.Carefully nurtured customer lock-in becomes unlocked.Upstart vendors create new niches in the middle of established vendor's territory.Big players like Google, Microsoft, and Oracle extend and shape markets by leveraging SIM technology into their enormous user bases.

Caught in the fog of rapid evolutionary change, it is hard to see the landscape out toward the horizon.But, there are three principles what help focus the picture:
  • First, information technology always evolves toward the way that people think and act.Location is a fundamental part of the way we think and act.
  • Second, like it or not, cheaper, better, faster trumps established tradition.Things that are cheaper, better or faster will eventually overwhelm established practice at an inflection point.This is the foundation of Andy Grove's landmark book, "Only the Paranoid Survive".
  • Third, disruptive innovation happens when and where it happens, not necessarily when or where it is planned.Did you see Google Maps coming 12 months ago? I didn't.
With these principles in mind, we can peer a short distance into the future.Figure 2 illustrates one reasonable scenario (See below - click for larger image):

The left side of Figure 2 should probably reach back to about 2300 BC when the first known map was scribed on a clay tablet.The point is that "analog" cartography is very old and well-established. Well-established, that is, until cartography encountered GIS.At that point, cheaper-better-faster GIS transformed map making into digital geographic data collection.Paper maps were transformed into geospatial digital data and GIS developed into an industry.

GIS and geospatial data collection will continue on into the future.But, a number of cheaper-better-faster approaches will also gain prominence and may eventually have larger impacts than cartography or GIS.One of those approaches is what IDC calls Enterprise Location Services and Software, ELSS for short.ELSS is about the use of location-specific information within information systems.Several technologies will combine to make ELSS grow: SOA, automated location determination like GPS and cellular networks, spatially-enabled IT infrastructure, open standards, open tools for developing spatially-enabled applications and the huge installed base of geospatial users.Those things are all out there now and are converging.Spurred by user interest, both Open Source and proprietary developers are working on tens of thousands of different spatial applications, platforms and concepts.With all this concerted effort, change will certainly occur.Information systems will certainly become spatially-enabled.

Follow the money?
Yes, change will occur, but that begs one large question: where's the money? Is there revenue to be made as information systems evolve toward more ubiquitous use of location-specific data and technology? Many businesses like to develop elaborate business models before they enter a market, so that revenue is anticipated and predictable.This rarely works in emerging, chaotic markets like ELSS.There are just too many unknowable variables.

Phenomena like ELSS just have to run and competition has to have time to work its magic.If there's money to be made, the business models will emerge.Maybe quickly or maybe slowly, the market will mature and polarize around a few winners before it transforms again.

As the market develops, keeping track will be the job of publications like Location Intelligence. If they do a good job, they will become a valuable resource. Given the people at Directions Media and their collective track records, they will be well worth watching.Good Luck!

Published Sunday, September 11th, 2005

Written by David Sonnen

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