The Enterprise Spatial Challenge

By Jack Pellicci

Jack_Pellicci The convergence of geospatial technology with mainstream IT platforms is driving enormous advances in the ability to deploy spatial information across the enterprise and the Web.Geospatial tools, including GIS, are now able to deliver more reliability, security and scalability as they leverage IT infrastructure.In doing so, these geospatial technologies become enabling services to more mainstream business applications.The proprietary "glue" that was once necessary to connect the component parts of a GIS software application is being replaced by open standard interfaces, protocols and schemas.This is being done so that software components (database, application server, spatial tools) that were once "tightly coupled" in a single software package can now be assembled through a looser, more open "publish, find, bind" regime that spans across the enterprise and the Web.

In this new world, geospatial data generates more value than it did before, and it is much more a commodity than it was before.It is also produced and managed in more ways - both by machines and by people.There is more of it and there is a bigger market for it.Its heterogeneity and uniqueness is no longer a barrier to widespread use.If an organization cares to describe a dataset in metadata, put it online and register the metadata in catalogs, that data can be quickly discovered and known in all its details by any population the organization seeks to serve.This is good news for people who use geospatial technologies, but it is even better news for those who don't.It is good news for any person within reach of the internet who faces a task that might be performed more efficiently if that person knew more about the "where" of particular people, places or things.

This introduces an interesting challenge for people who engineer business processes and enterprise information systems.It's not so much a technical challenge, because technology providers knowledgeable about the relevant standards and commercial offerings can provide the necessary technical solutions.The challenge is a challenge of imagination: How can we best make use of this remarkable development? What kinds of spatial information would be useful to each person, each office, each employee, each client in everything they do? How can our organization better accomplish its core mission though "spatial enablement" of business processes and of the information systems that support those processes?

These are questions that information system architects are learning to ask when they examine how to make use of location information that is readily collected but not broadly used in their organizations. When a business's new customer first provides a street address or zip code, there is probably some way in which that business can immediately begin using that bit of spatial data to tailor a response in serving that customer.When a customer service representative, a salesman, a marketing manager, a field service technician, a policeman, or an assessor describes their work to a spatially savvy work analyst, that analyst will find opportunities to say, "Aha! If you had this or that bit of spatial information, you could be more efficient or effective." In the new world of location enabled enterprise systems and web services, those bits of spatial information are easy to provide.

The benefits of spatial awareness are significant, and the cost of delivering spatial information is decreasing as users realize significant cost savings from leveraging their existing IT infrastructure to deploy a new class of enterprise geospatial applications and web services.The old style GIS with its tightly bound database, processing engine and display engine still has great value, but may not be as cost effective for enterprise spatial applications that need to access spatial information assets across various departments and from various tools and applications.It also doesn't fit into service oriented architectures unless the GIS is wrapped with open interfaces.

In the new world, special purpose systems like GIS are giving way to flexible spatial platforms.A lot of "ordinary" data has "spatialness," and spatial data can deliver significant value to ordinary business applications.Enterprise architects need to look at GIS data for the value it can bring to applications other than GIS.The architect must consider where and how the data can be meaningfully repurposed, stored and managed.Architects also need to deliver database security, version control, scalability and acceptable response times (which may involve considerations of parallelism and grid computing). They must grapple with the pros and cons of consolidating some servers while distributing others. Finally, as spatial components become less tightly coupled, system architects need to examine how to meaningfully deliver spatial processing - through their spatial database, their geospatial tools, or as a web service.There is no one correct answer. Rather, the delivery of spatial processes (spatial indexing, network analysis, topology validation, navigation routing, geocoding/reverse geocoding, coordinate transformation and business rules) will depend on up front requirements.

Enterprise business applications bring real and perceived value to an organization. There is usually a bottom line assessment for determining this value. Fortunately, geospatial technology providers, integrators and data suppliers have worked together for a long time in OGC to create the necessary standards framework, and now their offerings are designed to be readily integrated into enterprise systems.Now that the integration of geospatial technologies into mainstream IT platforms is at hand, the remaining challenge is to better articulate the value that geospatial information brings to business workflows, data warehouses, and web portals.


Published Tuesday, October 12th, 2004

Written by Jack Pellicci



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