Top Ten of 2009

By Adena Schutzberg

Each year I pick out ten events, ideas, themes, products, etc. that stood out over the preceding 12 months. (I took a pass in 2008, as I explained at that time.) This year I'm back at it. So, in no particular order, here's this year's list.

1. Santa Clara County
There's been a lot written about this key test case in the state of California. The bottom line (Directions Magazine article), after years of effort from the California First Amendment Coalition (CFAC), the party of interest that brought the suit: the county can't charge more than the cost of reproduction for taxpayer funded geodata and cannot restrict its use. Another interesting outcome: the county was forced to pay $500,000 for CFAC court fees. (APB post)

Now, this case falls under California's specific open records law and thus is not applicable across the U.S. (or elsewhere). Still, with new efforts such as the U.S. federal government's push for transparency and the goal of "default" data sharing, perhaps we'll see far fewer of these cases.

2. Augmented Reality
Augmented reality (AR), the high-tech solution for adding information to one's current reality, until recently meant wearing specialized head-mounted displays while flying aircraft or venturing into hazardous situations such as war zones or chemical spills. With all the required geospatial data, positioning information and connectivity now available in PDAs and phones, AR is now available to far more people for far more uses. While many early implementations focus on "local search" type of data (where is the local restroom, McDonalds, bar, or a list of iPhone AR apps from Mashable), more focused and/or specialized apps such as "show me where I parked my car" are likely to be very popular (Directions on the News podcast on AR).

I expect we'll see technicians in the field look through their hand-held devices or glasses-mounted lenses to get all the details of the "furniture" hanging off utility poles before they climb them.

In some ways AR is "just another" way to query and present location-tagged database records. But it opens up a whole new challenge of how to best represent and then "lay" that information on the real world for a given purpose. This is something artists and cartographers and other graphics professionals will need to explore.

3. Touch
Just as AR is now available to many more people via gadgets like the iPhone and Android devices, so too is the use of touch. While some users insist on separate keyboards and buttons for public and private devices, others are happily touching screens every day. Here in Boston we use touch screens at the auto-checkout lane at the grocery store and at the "T" kiosks to add money to our Charlie Cards to travel on public transportation.

This year I touched my first Microsoft Windows Surface hardware (at our Location Intelligence Conference, Directions Magazine article). I learned that its price is dropping down nicely ($12K). Interestingly, even as more and more of us use small touch screens on phones and on public kiosks such as those noted above, adults are still hesitant to start touching these larger screens in other situations, according to vendor Infusion Development.

4. Google
Google continues to surprise at least some of us with its offerings of data, developer tools and end user apps. (Consumer hardware appears to be the next area that Google will explore in 2010.) The big changes in Google's geo-offerings in 2009 include:
  • spatial search tools in the API (which some say cover some 80% of what GIS apps do); the updates to the API allow developers to build quick and easy query tools into their mashups (APB post).
  • the decision in the U.S. to discontinue licensing of Tele Atlas' street level data; Google has developed its own dataset based on a variety of data including "corrections" from anyone who cares to make them (APB post).
  • the use of the Google copyright dataset to provide Google Maps Navigation for its Android operating system; the free app includes spoken turn-by-turn directions and has received positive reviews from many reviewers (Google Maps Navigation).
Each step Google takes seems to pull along Microsoft (whose Bing offerings in the geospatial realm continue to get very positive reviews from professionals and consumers) and MapQuest (which still has a loyal following of business users and is now on the Federal GSA schedule).

The geodata marketplace is "shifting" as Google becomes a data company even though for the moment, it does not provide those data to others, except via its API. The personal satellite navigation marketplace (devices and applications that run on the devices) was shifting even before Google joined the fray (TomTom on iPhone) and continues to twist and turn during the holiday period (half-price for that same app). But what is going on in the smaller, "nichier" professional GIS marketplace? It's getting harder and harder to draw the line between analysis (professional GIS) and visualization (consumer and Web mapping and 3D visualizations). With Google offering up spatial queries (Microsoft may soon follow and MapQuest may, as well, in the distant future) plus imagery and analysis hosting (the latest forestry work), the lines are blurring. Further, having a GIS programmer who could also "whip up" a quick mashup or app used to be a "nice to have"; today those skills are required. At Penn State we added a "mashups course" to our MGIS program several years ago and it continues to be in demand even as students take project management and other professional courses.

5. Free
Geospatial professionals cannot ignore free. OpenStreetMap (OSM) is now an equal opportunity offering on deCarta's platform (APB post) and is popping up (via a Cloudmade API) as an option, or as the only basemap on a variety of Web and mobile solutions (APB posts 1, 2). All of the social networks (of which I'm aware) that include geospatial are free (whether you submit data back to them or not). All those free APIs that professionals and non-professionals started using a few years ago, despite the threat of "ads" cluttering them up, continue to be free and relatively free of ads. Even ESRI "freed up" its API for non-commercial use for those who did not have ArcGIS Server (APB post).

It's interesting to me that it's hard to ignore these free offerings (they get lots of buzz), while open source "free" geospatial tools, despite considerable maturation, seem to get far less buzz and ink. Frankly, I think that has a lot to do with branding. OSM, Google, ESRI and the various LBS apps and games have been successful, in part, because of good branding. A reader recently forwarded a CloudMade e-mail he received after participating in a CloudMade sponsored OSM effort. Open source efforts (not only geospatial ones) tend to lag in that area.

Note: If you've not yet read or listened to Chris Anderson's Free: The Future of a Radical Price, put it on your to-do list, along with this very insightful article on Google's "Less than Free" business model.

6. Swine Flu and Mapping
Last spring you could not turn on the TV or visit a new webpage without seeing some sort of map detailing some aspect of H1N1/swine flu: cases, deaths, responses, etc. Maps came in all shapes and sizes from authoritative and non-authoritative sources.

I'm not sure we've yet compiled what was learned from all of those mapping efforts, in particular what worked and what did not, how to distinguish between authoritative and non-authoritative sources and maps, and how to source maps with user generated or collected content. So far this flu season the key maps have been detailing where vaccines were (or until recently in my state, were not) available. On the positive side: these efforts were led by authoritative data compliers such as Google (APB post) and state health departments.

7. GIS for the Nation
The beginning of this year included several efforts (APB post) within our community to convince the U.S. government to set aside money as part of the stimulus for what was variously called "GIS for the Nation" or a "National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI)." The resulting documents have shown how passionate different groups and individuals are about moving such an effort forward. The most difficult part of this effort seems to be rallying the troops and presenting a cohesive story to our government. While COGO (Coalition of Geospatial Organizations) was drawn up in 2008 to try to keep many of the key geospatially related organizations on the same page, it's been rather quiet this year. It did endorse the idea of these efforts (not a particular vision document), via a letter to Congressman Reid.

I don't mean to suggest for a moment that pulling everyone together is a simple task (the Copenhagen meetings are wrapping up as I write...). But I do want to challenge readers to bear in mind the possible fruit we could grow if we could get it together. One of the highlights of those efforts had to be testimony by several representatives regarding unifying and providing better oversight of our federal geospatial efforts (Directions on the News podcast).

8. Quiet Where There Should be Noise?
It feels to me like this year we "lost" two key geospatial players. I know that's not exactly true because both Intergraph and Autodesk continue to support sizable user bases across a variety of geospatial use areas. Still, even at their respective user meetings, geospatial seemed to take a backseat to other efforts. Editor in Chief Joe Francica, who was perhaps the only geospatial journalist in attendance at Intergraph's event, had to tease out what seemed a conservative vision clearly focused on existing over new customers (Directions Magazine article). I had a free pass to Autodesk University Virtual (the online offering for the event in Las Vegas at the end of November; faculty working with Autodesk products received such a pass) and chose not to take advantage of it. When I read this in GIS Cafe Editor Susan Smith's recap, I was frankly disappointed that I made a "good choice" to work on other projects: "In a later conversation with [Paul] McRoberts [director of the Infrastructure Group], he said geospatial is still very much a part of Autodesk, but that many users do not use GIS in their work and see no need for it."

That said, a number of other companies' geospatial technologies didn't seem to explode in users or buzz. Microsoft SQL Server 2008 with geospatial is now two years old. Perhaps it's being widely used and discussed, but it comes up rarely in my discussions and travels. (Having said that, several blog posts noted it this week, including one highlighting a chapter in a Microsoft book on the topic.) There was much excitement about Firefox geolocation; our podcast on the topic from late 2008 was one of our most downloaded. I can't recall if I heard about it at all in 2009! Even Twitter's implementation of a geospatial tag for tweets (agreement to provide Twitter results in searches seems to be far more valuable, at least in the first few weeks of their rollouts.

Now, it's certainly possible that the foursquares, Rummbles and wazes of the world are squeezing the air out of the room for these developer focused tools. These are full-blown apps, not platforms. That makes me wonder about new platform offerings such as TownMe [acquired by Twitter since I penned this article] (APB post) and SimpleGeo (APB post), and how they will or won't break into the space.

9. The Cloud
Despite the remnants of concern about lack of connectivity and security (to name only two), the discussions of 2009 seem to indicate that The Cloud is in the future of pretty much all geospatial developers, and thus geospatial users. Exactly how that will play out and which players at the different levels (ESRI's tech leaders laid it out nicely; APB post) will "win" is still unclear. My sense is that 2010 will be when cloud players will need to bring their key differentiators to the fore to build their user bases.

10. Who is geospatial?
I don't mean to ask this question as Eric Gakstatter did in a recent GPS World article. He focused on measuring the marketplace and which type of companies should be included. No, I mean, who is it geospatial professionals should support? Are we lured into the consumer space by the excitement and immediate feedback of putting out a low-cost iPhone app? Or do we stay focused on the key day-to-day complex applications demanded by professionals in government and science and the like? Can or should those two masters be served at once? Does that make good business sense in the current "turn around time" in the world economy?

MapPoint (Microsoft) and BusinessMap (ESRI) and other easier-to-use consumer and business tools didn't put any of the larger GIS players out of business in the 1990s. They may even have helped draw customers to higher end desktop and enterprise solutions. Despite big pushes from Google and Microsoft in recent years, the key players are still in good form as we move into 2010. Still, the winning formula for professional vs. consumer, proprietary vs. open source, Internet-based vs. stand-alone and other "prize fights" is still to be determined for the next decade.

Published Tuesday, January 5th, 2010

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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