The LI 15 Minute Update: Short Conversations with Geo Technology and Data Providers – Part 1

By Adena Schutzberg

I tried an experiment at Location Intelligence this year. I stole an idea I've seen used at the ESRI User Conference for years. Instead of Founder Jack Dangermond going to the press or users during the huge event, they go to him for 15-minute (or sometimes longer) sessions in a temporary office in the San Diego convention center. So, I staked out an "office" in the outdoor courtyard and invited a handful of exhibitors, speakers and attendees to visit with me for 15 minutes. I had a great time and felt like we "got right to the good stuff" in our conversations. Here's what I learned.

Darren Koenig from Tele Atlas highlighted a few subtle themes stirring at the company. Much of the "excitement" in geographic data is evolutionary, not revolutionary, he noted. For example, the new data appearing in the company's street level datasets include information about bridge heights, hazardous materials restrictions, and steep grades. Definitely not sexy. Also not sexy: the fact that partners and application builders need to include that new information in their offerings and that takes time. The sexy part? In the end, such data mean lower transportation costs (seen the price of gasoline lately?) and significant ROI. Other detailed data/data collection tools geared more toward automated vehicle technologies, that is, cars that help the driver. For example, a satnav (satellite navigation) device will know what lane a car is in and use that to provide detailed instructions. Further, if a system knows of a steep grade ahead it can warn the driver to change gears, or automatically do so in advance. Koenig's other comments related to collaborating and growing the industry. He pointed to a recent investment "competition" held with VentureWire, the Tele Atlas LBS Innovators Series, to help grow new applications that use location. The winner, interestingly, is not location enabled (yet). It's a company called Pongr. It's a phone app that will query the Web for online prices of a product of which you take a picture. For now, it doesn't offer whether local stores have the item in stock or their prices, but that could come in time. Why the interest in this odd app? Perhaps it’s the recognition technology. The bottom line, per Koenig: such efforts raise all boats and grow the ecosystem.

Perhaps, like me, you've seen Warren Vick's name quite a bit in the last 15 years. He's the voice and face of Europa Technologies and at one time a regular poster on MapInfo-L. Today, Europa is well-known in part due to its data appearing on Google Maps and Google Earth. So, what's the story of this 18-year-old, five-person company based in the UK? The company started out serving the telco market, specifically the GSM association (hence the use of MapInfo). How did the company get into Google's mapping offerings? Vick shared the story about running into the Keyhole staff at an ESRI User's Conference some years ago. He pitched his data, which cost more than the public domain data the company then used. He got a "no thanks" reply. Spin forward two years later... and the same fellow, now employed by Google, called to ask about those data. Europa data have been in the product ever since.

Vick appreciates the money coming from Google, but is quick to note that having the company name in the apps drives business directly. One solid market: those who purchase Google Earth Enterprise (the version you host inside your organization), but don't need/can't afford the worldwide data or imagery. Europa offers a less detailed vector dataset, at lower cost, that does the job for many applications. Europa is famous in another way besides being in Google Earth; its data have been in the movies, most recently in a James Bond flick. How does such a small company stay in the data business, one well-known to require lots of labor? Europa outsources "a lot." And, it sets its data apart by making "pretty" one of its goals. While that may not be the end goal of highly accurate and technical mapping sites and apps, it’s just what some clients want and need. What's ahead? The leap to imagery - to date, Europa has only sold vector data, but it's in the process of assembling a medium scale global dataset, built from Landsat data, called Global Visage. No doubt it will be pretty!

Russ Chandler from Ubisense gave me a bit of a tour beyond the indoor location demonstration that launched the conference. When I asked what's ahead, he was quick to point to embedding sensors into building infrastructures. That way, the challenges of setting up, tuning and then removing sensors that his and the Fish team faced at our location would be moot. In fact, Ubisense partners are out trying to convince venues such as convention centers to consider such investments.

Mostly, however, Chandler wanted to share the success of its tag in automobile manufacturing. Manufacturing is one place where UWB uptake and ROI have blossomed. The most impressive implementation involved the time saved by workers on the production line of a European automaker. Building a vehicle involves its passage through some 150 stations. In the past, workers used bar code scanners to confirm a task had been completed. That meant picking up the scanner, swiping it over the code, putting it down and picking up a tool. Now, the tools carry RFID tags and, in a sense, "confirm" the task completion on their own. That, in one case, means a task has dropped from taking 56 second to 50 seconds. That in turn can mean greater productivity on the line and more cars made per day. Ideally, such tagging also enables the prevention of errors, but if not, they are found and then fixed in place, another time saver.

If you've ever spoken with Ed Katibah, spatial program manager, SQL Server, of Microsoft you may know that he's one of those people who, no matter what you want to speak about, will tell you about what he has on his mind. I've learned that anyone like that is not worth fighting; you listen to them and invariably take away something interesting. (Examples of other folks with this interesting "quirk" include David Schell, Jack Dangermond and my late professor Peter Gould.) I had a hunch what Katibah had on his mind because he'd noted it when I ran into him the day before: SQL injection. I had to ask what it was because I didn't know. SQL injection is a way to insert potentially damaging code into a database by embedding it in another scripting layer or even in a URL.

Katibah explained that many tech people, geospatial ones, too, like to think the world is a nice place and people follow the rules: they stop at stop signs, don't drink and drive, and try to follow the rules. Unfortunately, some don't and alas, we must be on the look out and prepare for them while we are out driving, and while we are coding our mapping apps! Why is Katibah interested in spreading the word? In part because the vulnerability was found not by Microsoft but by its Most Valuable Professionals (MVPs). The SQL Server team offered up early code to MVPs and they noted it was subject to SQL injection. So now, Katibah wants to get the word out even before the product lands in the hands of the geospatial community. There’s been a rash of SQL injection attacks lately. C|net offered a podcast on the topic last week.

Part 2 of this article will appear tomorrow, and will include discussions with WeatherBug, WeoGeo, Seisan, MapQuest and Quova

Published Thursday, May 8th, 2008

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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