Top Ten of 2007

By Adena Schutzberg

Each year for the past seven I've picked out 10 events, ideas, themes, products, etc. that have stood out over the preceding 12 months. There were many recaps of 2007 (including our "Year in Review" podcast and thoughts on the matter from insiders) so I've tried to pick out some items that were more subtle, more hidden for this list. The topics are in no particular order.

1. The Year of the Developer
Vendors have been trying to tap into third party developers as a resource to sell into new markets for years. Ideally, these developers craft vertical solutions that take horizontal technology into business opportunities too expensive or specialized for a broader-focused technology provider to tap. This year geospatial technology and data providers offered more infrastructure and more incentives to lure partners. For one, more advertising geared toward developers popped up. Did you notice that MapInfo (now part of Pitney Bowes), a vendor generally not as focused on developers as others, ran an ad beaconing: "GIS Developers! Translate location intelligence to profitable apps for your customers!" At the same time data providers were fishing for new development partners, as contests from NAVTEQ (Global LBS Challenge) and TeleAtlas (LBS Innovator Series) suggested. Finally, distinct developer conferences from geo-vendors (ESRI, MapInfo, deCarta) and others (AJAX World Conference) are beginning to rival user conferences for buzz and excitement.

2. Smaller Acquisitions
Certainly it was a year for big money acquisitions, notably in the geographic data space, but don't forget that plenty of smaller geo technology companies were gobbled up: Acquis Technology, ER Mapper and IONIC Software all went to Leica (owned by Hexagon), Multimap to Microsoft, ImageAmerica to Google, and a distributor (Axciom France) and a mining-focused company (Encom, Australia) to MapInfo (owned by Pitney Bowes). My suspicion is we'll be hearing more about acquisitions of geo-companies of which most of us have not heard. I, for one, knew only vaguely of Acquis and ImageAmerica and had not run into Axciom or Encon before the announcements.
3. Name Game
I think the current discussions about what we call our discipline/market sector/technology indicate we are in a state of flux. There's the neo/paleo geography discussion, but perhaps as telling is the renaming of the GITA conference as the "Geospatial Infrastructure Solutions Conference." That speaks, at least from GITA's perspective, to a focus on the man-made world versus the natural one. At the same time we continue to use both the terms "geographic information system" and "geographic information science," with perhaps the former more in the business/government world and the latter in education. Many in and out of the community continue to use the term "GPS" (or global positioning system, which refers specifically to the U.S. constellation) in place of the more universal "GNSS" (or global navigation satellite system, the generic term) which covers GPS, Glonass and the still entangled potential future Galileo.

4. Into the Worlds?
How does our vision of 3D models and virtual cities, used for decision making among other uses, fit into the online worlds such as Second Life? Are these worlds places for research or money making or both? Note that the CTO of Linden Labs (makers of Second Life) recently left and a third party content creator, Electric Sheep, cut 25% of its employees. Two real world companies with a presence in Second Life have left: AOL and Pontiac. Further, it's unclear how many new users are being cultivated and staying active.

5. Privacy, Schmivacy
Location related privacy concerns seem to be drying up. There's the odd article about how carrying a GPS means that anyone can track you (not true), or that tracking your kids is bad for them (not clear if that's true), or that Google's StreetView invades privacy and might be illegal (not the case in the U.S. anyway, so far). Is it possible that many users of LBS realize the value of sharing location information - for a family finder application, for example, or for a service such as the real-time traffic information in Dash? For now these worries seem overshadowed by those caused by human error: hacked social security information or credit card numbers or information unwittingly made available by governments and private companies.

6. Education: Beyond GIS
I'm seeing indications that the demand for geospatial education is going beyond just teaching software packages. The release of the first in a series of teaching products focused on GIS/geospatial technology use in a range of sectors is one piece of that evidence. Comments on geo-education like this one from an open thread on a blog are another: "Some food for thought, when will college/university and other technical schools start teaching open source GIS solutions? Learning something in school and coming out to the workforce only to have 0 skills in open source would be kind of a bummer. I feel like if you want the world to switch to open source (and not the few on the bleeding edge) you'll have to start them there at the beginning." There's motion in that direction via OSGEO.

7. That Other Kind of Services
While geo Web Services continue to mature and discussions of service oriented architecture (SOA) swirl, I was pleased to see the use of core Web services from Amazon used for geospatial implementations. Discussions popped up alongside the "big" geo-user of these services, WeoGeo, which made the finals of, but did not win, the Amazon StartUp Challenge. I point to S3 (Simple Storage Service), EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloud) and its brethren as future key resources because: (1) our processing can be complex and take quite a bit of power, (2) offerings sometimes need to be up 24/7, and (3) geo-implementations can require significant storage. That's what Amazon and others are providing, for what I understand is "cheap."

8. Pushback on the Wonders of Satellite Imagery
I want to call out Major Cynthia Ryan, spokesperson for the Civil Air Patrol, who fearlessly stated over and over again that having thousands of people (some who followed directions and others who did not) squint at imagery of Nevada in the search for Steve Fossett (CNN archive of the stories) was not helpful (Wired). (Fossett's wife has requested that he be declared dead and the expectation is that someday the wreckage of his plane will be found.) Ryan noted that it was unlikely the plane was intact, that debris would be small and non-distinct and that those who meant well but tried to go around channels set up for their input hampered her colleagues' work. It was a valuable reality check (and education) for all. One tribute is coming early in 2008: Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites have decided to name one of the two SpaceShipTwo craft after Fossett. Also of note, one of the participants in the online hunt is working to create a more effective online search and rescue solution.

9. The Media and Collaborative Maps
Newspapers, TV and radio, with the support of number of GIS, graphics and search companies, have included maps in print, online and on air for some time. Interactive maps became standard in the last few years, but this year collaborative maps, with input from staffers and/or the public, took a huge step. Maps created by California outlets topped millions of hits (Directions Media podcast) during the wildfires over the summer. Flooding in the Pacific Northwest also prompted maps. This is just the beginning. Technologists at media organizations need to learn more about how to use and manage such tools (KPBS had bandwidth problems and got help from Google with its fire maps). Reporters need to manage and detail data sources and determine the best way to integrate (or not) user generated content. Best practices learned in these situations can only add value to shared resources for all sorts of uses beyond these emergencies.

10. Measuring LBS Impact
Journalists and others struggle year to year to measure whether location-based services are "here yet." Hardware is selling well and start-ups tapping into location continue to pop up, but have the services changed how we operate in our social or professional lives? I will agree that satnav/traffic services (in car, portable or on phone) are changing behavior. But outside of these, I've not experienced or seen in my interactions with others, enough of an impact of other location services to state that life has changed. Perhaps I don't interact with the demographic that's using these enough, but I am still looking for concrete evidence of LBS' impact in my corner of the world.   

Published Thursday, January 3rd, 2008

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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