What Was the Second Most Important Year in Geospatial?

By Carl Reed III

Back in 2006, I penned a short editorial titled “What Was the Most Important Year in the History of the Geospatial Industry?” For those who did not read the editorial, the answer is 1969. Read the editorial to understand my reasoning. At the end of that editorial I asked the question: What is the next most important year in our industry?

This is a tough question. Since 1969, there have been an amazing number of important events in our industry. Perhaps it was the year the major earth browsers arrived on the scene (2005). Perhaps it was the year the first Web-based navigation applications came online (1996). Tough to decide, but my suggestion is actually a 14-month period spanning two years, 1993 and 1994. During this 14-month period, technology and standards organizations appeared that have both enabled and shaped the Web we know today – and we all know how the Web has changed hundreds of human interactions ranging from buying shoes to networking with friends.

In 1993, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign released the Mosaic browser. Mosaic is the Web browser credited with popularizing the World Wide Web (WWW).  Interesting evidence of the impact of the Mosaic browser can be found on Matthew K. Gray’s website, Internet Statistics: Growth and Usage of the Web and the Internet. Shortly after (1994), Marc Andreessen and James Clark started Mosaic Communications which morphed into Netscape and the product was renamed Netscape navigator. In 1993, I used Mosaic as part of a team to develop a Web application for the Department of Agriculture. The application provided a simple Web page to frame queries to find specific agricultural reports – the search included spatial parameters.

In 1993, the very first Web mapping application appeared: The Xerox PARC Map Viewer was released. The application was developed by Steve Putz at Xerox Corporation's Palo Alto Research Center as an experiment in providing interactive information retrieval via the World Wide Web. A paper describing the Map Viewer was presented in May 1994 at the First International World-Wide Web Conference. The Map Viewer is implemented as a perl script that accepts requests for map renderings and returns an HTML document including an inlined GIF image of the requested map. Interesting enough, the OGC Web Map Service interface (WMS) architecture defined in 1998 is almost identical.

In 1993, Microsoft released the Cello browser. Cello was written by Thomas R. Bruce for the Legal Information Institute at Cornell Law School to provide legal information. Apparently, more lawyers had access to Windows than to Unix.

In late 1993, the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards(OASIS) was first formed as Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML) Open as a trade association of SGML tool vendors to cooperatively promote the adoption of SGML through mainly educational activities, though some amount of technical activity was also pursued including an update of the CALS Table Model specification and specifications for fragment interchange and entity management. As a document markup language, SGML was originally designed to enable the sharing of machine-readable large-project documents in government, law and industry.

In July 1994, there was the announcement of the MIT/CERN agreement to start the W3C standards organization. The W3C was founded at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Laboratory for Computer Science (MIT/LCS) with support from the European Commission and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which had pioneered the Internet. W3C is the home for numerous Web standards, such as XML and HTML, which developers use daily to build, deploy and maintain Web-based applications.

The ISO/TC 211 technical committee for geomatics was formed. “ISO/TC 211 Geographic information/Geomatics is responsible for the ISO geographic information series of standards.” The mission of TC 211 is to establish a structured set of abstract standards for information and service models concerning objects or phenomena that are directly or indirectly associated with a location relative to the Earth. Shortly after the formation of TC 211 and the OGC (see below), ISO approved a Class A liaison relationship between the OGC and TC 211. Under the terms of reference for this liaison activity, the TC 211 and OGC membership collaborate on standards of common interest, such as those related to spatial reference systems. The terms also allow the OGC to incorporate TC 211 standards into the OGC Abstract Specification (such as ISO 19107, Spatial Schema) and for OGC standards to be submitted into the ISO process and be approved as de-jure standards (such as the OGC Web Map Service and Geography Markup Language).

And of course, the Open Geospatial Consortium (back then called the OpenGIS Consortium) was formed in 1994. Much of the early vision and work of the OGC was framed by Kenn Gardels in a groundbreaking article in the Fall 1993 issue of GRASSCLIPPINGS on openness in the spatial domain, describing the Open GIS Application Environment (OGAE). The other activity that framed the early work of the OGC was the Mark 17, 1994 OpenGIS Foundation workshop titled “An Open forum on Geodata Interoperability.” This was a one-day set of panel discussions on interoperability and information sharing toward implementing the national spatial data infrastructure. Over 400 professionals attended this one-day workshop. I was fortunate to attend. I actually have the agenda for this landmark workshop. The company I worked for at the time became OGC member number 10. Our company joined because we were losing business due to mandatory requirements in federal procurements for being able to read and write proprietary data formats. We believed that lack of data interoperability was limiting the growth of the market.

That is not all. Here are some other major events that happened in 1993 and 1994 that have had incredible implications for the geospatial industry, location services and social media:

In 1993:

  • The GPS system achieved initial operational capability
  • First ACM-GIS workshop was held in Arlington, Virginia
  • EUROGI was founded with the mission to maximize the availability and effective use of geographic information throughout Europe, still operational today
  • Windows NT was released, first version to use 32-bit flat virtual memory on 32-bit processors

In 1994:

  • By executive order, President Clinton created the US NSDI (National Spatial Data Infrastructure) initiative
  • Development began on the Minnesota MapServer open source project
  • First blog was created by Claudio Pinhanez at the MIT Media Lab website

I suspect there are other important events that also happened in this short period of time. Our industry has a rich history with significant contributions and enhancements happening on a regular basis. Unfortunately, the vast majority of articles and books that describe the history of our industry fail miserably. They touch on one or two well-known significant events and ignore the hundreds if not thousands of contributions that have occurred since the first digital maps were created back in the 1950s. Of course there are exceptions. For example, there are a number of excellent, well-written histories of Web mapping. I would like to see more such complete histories written and available.

Published Monday, September 12th, 2011

Written by Carl Reed III