Stewart Geo Technologies: From Cadastral Systems to Real Estate to Web Services

By Joe Francica

Stewart Geo Technologies is part of the larger Stewart Information Services Corporation, and many readers will be familiar with Stewart Title Guarantee Corporation, one of the largest title companies in the world.Stewart Geo Technologies acquired GlobeXplorer last December in order to enhance its geospatial services for the real estate, insurance and other industries that rely on access to large data stores of geographic information. Directions Magazine Editor-in-Chief, Joe Francica, conducted an extensive interview with Kas Ebrahim, President of Stewart Geo Technologies and Rob Shanks, founder of GlobeXplorer.The company is at the forefront of providing its vast imagery library as a web service and leveraging the spatial data warehouse for use internally to many of Stewart's operating companies, as well as their large international customer base.

Joe Francica (JF): How are you integrating Stewart Geo Technologies into the larger Stewart organization - the upstream product to other Stewart divisions?
Kas Ebrahim (KE): Stewart has had companies in GIS and mapping for many, many years.But really, since about a year and one-half ago, we didn't try to make a major effort into integrating that core compentency into the everyday real estate process of the organization that we are engaged in.But that strategy was developed about a year and one-half ago, and as part of that strategy, the decision was made to acquire GlobeXplorer.So, we just really started the process of integrating GIS and mapping core competencies into the Stewart Technology products.

Rob Shanks (RS): Some of the existing Stewart mapping and GIS services are performed internationally. Stewart goes in and lays the groundwork for some of the cadastral systems. They did a huge project for the country of Romania, building cadastral systems that then turn into title systems and title opportunities.So there is really a huge market internationally for actually developing the core cadastral basis behind what eventually turn into title; that's a big growth area for Stewart.

KE: That is true. One thing we take for granted here is access to real estate information and the Freedom of Information Act.These laws don't exist internationally.

JF: Who would take ownership of the projects once you complete the cadastral survey? For example, in an former eastern block country who would take ownership of a land registry system or who would be in charge of the information so that a good land registry system is created for the country?
KE: It depends.Typically these countries are very sensitive about this information and the distribution of it.One of the things we do, in the projects that we go in on, we try to make sure we have some kind of a right to be able to have co-ownership of the data.At a minimum, we would have co-ownership, but the government would always have ownership of it, because they are the ones who are borrowing to build those systems.

ESRI's ArcExplorer uses the GlobeXplorer's ImageConnect - The application pulls imagery from GlobeXpleror's image library as well as vector data represented in this image as street centerlines (light orange) and parcel boundaries (black).

JF: What products are available from Stewart Technologies/GlobeXplorer that can be used either internally or by end-user customers?
RS: Our programming language, our API, is called ImageBuilder.And Stewart is a very technology driven organization; they've created something like 40+ software products for the real estate industry; they are using our API in various parts of their software packages and integrating our image and map content into the real estate transaction workflow.For instance, if there is a virtual transaction folder that involves agents, consumers, buyers and sellers; people can go online and check information about property; new valuation, assessment, appraisal, and that's integrated in existing software environments, and that's able to be done because of our programming level access that we provide.

JF: Is this available mostly on a subscription service?
RS: Our system is, from the ground up, an e-commerce backend that meters every single transaction. So, we can charge by the unit, and if there are multiple vendors within our solution; like somebody provides vectors and somebody provides aerial imagery; another person provides geocoding, we can automatically 'tick' each data type and expense and pay royalties against that to our content providers.Or, we can bundle things up and sell subscriptions, so it is $30 per month or $200 per month or whatever the package may be.

JF: So is this the fit that Stewart sees for GlobeXplorer as a content provider to other Stewart products and services?
RS: Just a little background on GlobeXplorer's relationship with Stewart is on multiple fronts.One, we have by far the largest holdings of aerial content in the country; upward of 400 terabytes spinning; three times the Library of Congress; we deliver that one and one-half million times everyday to paying customers; we have 120+ Sun servers sitting in an AT & T data center.It is a very, very large, scalable kind of virtual supercomputer-based system that can ingest content at the same time it is producing content for paying customers, all built around a programming language and three main products in an e-commerce system.But very, very unique in the marketplace.There are pretenders out there that have the typical internet map servers running on a few PCs here and there.Even companies like Terraserver are tiny in comparison to the architecture and content that we hold and deliver everyday.And so the interest in Stewart, on one front, is that we are a very, very large aggregator of geographic information products, with the ability to distribute these to any internet aware device, very rapidly, and charge for that in any number of ways, because of the flexibility of the e-commerce system.

JF: Let's talk about Web Services and how data will be ingested, purchased, and used in the coming months and years.It appears that Stewart GeoTechnologies/GlobeXplorer are positioned to offer web services?

RS: GlobeXplorer has been doing web services for 3+ years.And our pricing models are well in advance of even things that are going on at Microsoft with MapPoint or any of the other companies that are doing web services.Other people are catching up, I think, and figuring out how to do web-based pricing and even building systems that are capable of doing it.That's been our model from the "get-go" and the model has really taken off.

JF: Does your company feel threatened at all by the plethora of free data sources on the market?
KE: Do you use Lexus-Nexus? Lexus-Nexus is a $1Billion a year company.And everything that they sell is available free somewhere.But the value that they deliver is not the data, but the convenience of being able go in and have access to all this data from one point, so you don't have to spend your time looking for it. I think eventually, what it is going to come down to, is that, you have many companies in the geospatial industry, they have been making very good money, have been doing it years, by selling free data, like 7.5 minute data, the DEMs and DLGs, because they deliver them better and faster.They are customer focused, where government obviously isn't.They don't need to be.So, frankly, I don't believe, ever, we are going to be threatened by government, or how much free data they will have.I personally think it's great.I hope they put together a program to have 3-inch pixel resolution orthophotos of the U.S.and put it out there for free.Because the company that would benefit mostly from it would be us.

JF: It appears that Stewart Geo Technologies (SGT) has positioned itself as both a system integrator and a product company.How do you explain the competitive position of the company to potential clients?

KE: This is true. We seek to remove the burden of integration from our clients and enable them access to online geospatial solutions. We are using the term "integration and publication." For this to happen, a GIS platform is needed that can be provided to the customers in an ASP environment at a fraction of a customized solution, upon which clients can use internal resources or utilize our resources to custom build solutions and integrate them into their workflow. This will remove most if not all of the high startup costs associated with implementing GIS.

JF: Do you think you are now competing with formerly product-only companies like Intergraph, MapInfo and ESRI that are now just as focused on providing consulting solutions as they are software products?

KE: No. Successful companies have realized that to sustain growth they need to maintain their customer before capturing new markets.Otherwise a business is churning, not growing. To keep your customers, a business has to provide exceptional service, which in daily business process results in customer requests for products and services that are not within your core competency.One approach is to take on these new ventures internally.However, a better approach from our point of view is to have access to a network of partners that are better equipped to serve our customers' needs.We are in the process of forming such relationships to create a win-win situation for all involved.

JF: GlobeXplorer had worked to build a library from which other companies could buy a license to use the assets and build a solution that included imagery. How will you be changing the business model of GlobeXplorer and what will management be doing to compete with direct suppliers of remotely sensed data.

RS: We don't intend to change GlobeXplorer's business model.We intend to afford them the opportunity to realize their next stage of development.Stewart can make this happen in two ways: First, the GlobeXplorer founders developed a core competency in real estate.This will allow them to integrate their solutions into real estate technology products within Stewart, and use the larger firm's sales infrastructure to sell their imagery and related GIS data assets. Stewart maintains numerous real estate-related technology products that can benefit from GlobeXplorer's spatial based solutions.Stewart affiliated offices are in more than 6,600 locations throughout United States, which provide a tremendous sales infrastructure to GlobeXplorer.

Second, GlobeXplorer's business model does not limit the distribution of data only to imagery, but to a larger number of geospatial data layers that are essential for most GIS applications.In partnership with some of the commercial GIS software companies listed previously, we are in the process of building nationwide assets for other geospatial data layers and services. Stewart intends to use GlobeXplorer's flexible and massive information distribution technology as an anchor point for some of its future real estate information products.

Accordingly, we don't find ourselves in competition with suppliers of remote sensing data.On the contrary, we are forming relationships of various types with companies throughout the United States. We accomplish this because GlobeXplorer's premium imagery service utilizes many imagery data layers from many different sources. GlobeXplorer provides its content partners with a revenue stream that is otherwise unavailable to them.Citipix imagery (which GlobeXplorer owns) is only one layer in our multi-hundred-terabyte collection.

JF: Where are the growth markets for Stewart Geo Technologies services? The local government market is strapped for cash and commercial businesses will purchase solutions only if there is a justified, bottom line return on investment.How do you see yourself competing in this kind of economic climate?

KE: I view this environment to be suited for our business proposition to our potential customers, which are doing something out of the norm. People are more inclined to change given a compelling reason for change exists. Having to get more out of their resources will be a great motivator for public and private sector customers to work with us.Our growth markets include city, county, state and federal government, homeland security, civil agencies, utilities including water, gas, electric and telephone, GIS companies and real estate companies.

In the past, companies had to spend a lot of money to save money in the future.We are offering internet based GIS solutions in an ASP environment (subscription rather than acquisition of assets) to eliminate the high GIS startup costs. Our clients also have the ability to use our infrastructure as a GIS platform to build customized solutions of their own. Finally, the federal government has significantly increased its remote sensing and GIS data buys which will benefit the entire GIS industry.

JF: What are your core markets and can you give some brief examples of customer stories?

RS: Today SGT is predominantly selling to governmental agencies and large utilities. However, GlobeXplorer's customer base is much more diversified, with a high percentage coming from the private sector such as internet portals, banks, commercial real estate, title companies, and GIS companies to name a few.
(Since SGT provides a broad spectrum of products and services to a range of customers, it would be difficult to choose one story over another. If you would like to discuss a specific industry or application, we would be happy to do that over the phone.)

JF: Specifically for Landata products, how do you obtain data for Property Info? Is it solely in conjunction with the local government? Please explain how you maintain your database of tax and parcel records?

KE: Landata purchases tax assessor information from assessors across Texas, New York, Colorado and Illinois. After conversion, the data is standardized, geo-coded and cleansed producing the highest quality data available. The data is then enhanced by adding sales information, deeds and mortgages, flood data, schools, demographics, telephone numbers and maps. Data is updated regularly depending on the geographic location and data availability.'

JF: Do you have some perspective on how real estate professionals are or are not taking advantage of GIS technology? Where do you see the most opportunity for this technology and for your company?

KE: Since real estate professionals deal with assets that have a unique, physical position on the earth, GIS can be of tremendous help to them. However, the lack of integration of GIS into the real estate market is not because they missed the opportunity or are slow to adapt new technology. GIS itself hasn't been ready for such a market.We are just embarking on technology that can bring the power of GIS to real estate and many other mass markets. The advent of the Internet and various devices that can access this network, broadband technology, and a new vision that sees GIS's future as an element within a larger IT infrastructure of broader business markets is going to enable the wide acceptance of GIS into mass markets. More specifically to the real estate professionals, the process of marketing or searching properties is solely based on the characteristics of that property. GIS can enable existing IT systems that real estate professionals use, to assist their clients with the decision-making process of finding a property whether for commercial, residential, or investment purposes.Some MLSs are beginning to use GIS to expand the search criteria for a property search and use mapping tools to give more information concerning the location of the property. This is however just scratching the surface.Although, I believe GIS will play a vital role in what seems to be an enviable reengineering of the real estate transaction process, the change will more likely be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Becoming part of the real estate transaction workflow is the key.

Published Thursday, June 19th, 2003

Written by Joe Francica

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