The View from Here

By Adena Schutzberg

_Long Tails and Geodata
The whole "long tail" idea comes up again and again these days. I'm not sure everyone has the concept in hand, so I want to start there before going any further. The "long tail" coined by Chris Anderson (editor of Wired, who followed up with an article in that publication recently and published a book by that name this week, which was referenced in The New York Times) refers to the phenomenon whereby there's lots of demand for a few popular products (movies, books, albums/songs) and hence they produce a lot of revenue for companies (NetFlix, Amazon, iTunes), but there's little demand for lots of other similar products. For example, many people are going to want to rent Stephen Spielberg's Munich (like my brother and my parents and others), but only a few will want to rent Running on the Sun, about a long race through the desert (like me and other crazies who think that's interesting/fun).

So, Blockbuster will make a lot from Munich and other "blockbusters." It'll make less from Running on the Sun, but… and this is the key thing… it doesn't cost Blockbuster (NetFlix, Amazon, fill in your favorite Business 2.0 company here) that much to stock those films that are in "less demand." In fact, by making available all of those "long tail" films for a long time and serving them to the few who want to see them, it can make a pretty penny. (Want a better discussion? Listen to/read this short piece from National Public Radio's On the Media, where Brooke Gladstone interviews Clive Thompson from Wired.)

Now, why does this work in movies, books and music? It works for a few practical reasons: (1) these are not things you need to touch and you can buy them sight unseen with confidence they’re not stale; (2) those companies can store the stuff cheaply in an ugly warehouse in some place you never have to go; (here's the big one for us in geospatial) (3) the seeker can easily find the product using an online catalog.

But, back to geospatial. The point I want to make is that the long tail should/could/would exist in geospatial data products, but it does not … yet. Think about it. A handful of data providers have lots of customers and make a good deal of money. That part of the curve is solid. I'd offer up TeleAtlas, NAVTEQ, DigitalGlobe, GeoEye as top sellers at the head of the curve.

At the other end, there are lots of folks offering up very specialized databases of specific locales (some are local governments, for sure), specialized coverage (oil and gas, wind, come to mind), and real time data (traffic and weather). They are out there, but are often smaller niche players, so instead of large ads you might find them in our Directions on Data publication and noted in blogs. That group, so far as I can tell, is not yet a "long tail."

Why? There is no giant index where those offerings can be found and purchased. There's no "Amazon" for geospatial data…yet. Many portals exist where you can search (Geography Network, MapDex, Geospatial One-Stop and others index, and some make available for purchase, some data), but they’re not as complete as those of the Web 2.0 businesses I noted above. Why? There are lots of reasons, among them the fact that creating such a database is far more complex, due to the nature of data.

What’s happening instead or perhaps in parallel to the creation (someday) of such a search tool is the proliferation of new tools that lets any of us offer up our datasets to share with friends. ArcGIS Server will let you publish out your data (and services). A network KML file will allow many to see your favorite sailing spots. Virtual Earth's collections allow dataset sharing on that platform. Save ArcGIS, these examples are, for now, more tied to the "social networking" and advertising businesses. They have an informal quality, rather than a business/science focus, though of course, they are certainly used for those things. But, they do address a "long tail" sort of problem. For the 200 people who care about the 10 best places to fly kites in Massachusetts, a dataset is available and shareable. The challenge of making that information findable and accessible is not 100% solved.

That leads to another question: Should we expect to see a long tail in geospatial data? Would that be a good thing for our industry? I think it would. I think geospatial needs niche data providers. And, I think the industry needs an "Amazon" to organize and make all these datasets findable and purchasable. Several companies have tried that, most notably GlobeXplorer, which acts as a broker for many data providers. It offers its data up in an open standards way via support for OGC's WMS, which makes it more Amazon-like than other providers. It has a vested interest in one data provider, as it now owns AirPhotoUSA, though it continues to partner with many players. Amazon (and other Web 2.0's noted above) do not create their own content; they broker it. That may or may not be a key part of their success.

Clearly, there are a few preconditions for such a long tail geospatial data business. First, there needs to be a viable business model. There need to be sufficient metadata and/or samples to confirm that the product meets consumer needs. (This is a bit more complex than selling a book.) There needs to be assurance that data will be compatible with the software the client uses. (We are getting better at that!) There need to be businesses comfortable with the idea of working through such a broker. And a few other things folks with MBAs would know.

I will say this: once we get such a business up and running and successful, it'll be another sign that geospatial technology industry has "made it."


Published Tuesday, July 18th, 2006

Written by Adena Schutzberg



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