Where Standards Meet Location Intelligence

By Mark Cattini

The high-speed growth of our industry in the last few years shows that the "location intelligence" story is still finding many new readers and listeners. This, of course, is not news to readers of Directions, but "where" is an absolutely critical factor in strategic and operational decisions in virtually all business and public sector organizations. Using economics, demographics, physical geography and other data pertaining to location can yield business insights of extraordinary value in fields ranging from financial services to wireless network planning. We are in a period of rapidly evolving market conditions and technological innovation, and achieving the promised increase in productivity depends upon the adoption of key standards.

When people first learn about geospatial technologies, they are typically amazed to see what a rich set of capabilities lies underneath those appealing maps on the computer screen. Our industry offers an extraordinary set of user-friendly tools for analyzing data and providing easy-to-understand representations of those data that show their underlying but hidden dynamics. Terms like "spatial database operations," "proximity analysis," "location-based services," and "vector overlays on Earth images" are not part of the average person's vocabulary. But knowledgeable advocates of spatial intelligence don't need much time to show the average person how such capabilities can be applied in solutions to a wide variety of problems.

Organizations change when they begin to see the location components of their data as a hidden asset that can be applied broadly. Working with better intelligence means working more efficiently, providing better service and becoming more competitive. Employees who learn to "think spatially," with geospatial tools at their fingertips, continue to find new ways to apply those tools and make better use of an organization's custom data.

But not all the data are in one place. Within even a relatively small enterprise, it is likely that different kinds of corporate data have been created using different systems, and the data are often stored in different systems. Also, many solutions require additional data that may need to be obtained from data vendors, government data suppliers or business partners.

Particularly with the advent of the Internet and the Web, users who need more data cannot be expected to be content with time-consuming bulk data acquisition and conversion. Consequently, we at MapInfo have worked with users and our competitors in the Open Geospatial Consortium, Inc. (OGC) for a decade to address the compelling need for direct communication between software products and online services, regardless of vendor, internal data format, operating system or system architecture. The OGC membership has developed standards – OpenGIS Specifications – that, when implemented in products, make it easy for users to extract the full geospatial value of corporate data stored, for example, in Oracle, DB2 or SAP systems. We have made it easy to integrate spatial capabilities with Web services that employ technologies like XML and Java.

All of this expands the market, of course, which benefits both vendors and users. Open geospatial standards enable new capabilities that no single vendor could invent and market. The OGC's "aggregation" of technology providers and major users in an open and formal consensus process makes the OGC the natural forum for initiatives such as the Sensor Web Enablement (SWE) and Geospatial Digital Rights Management (GeoDRM). SWE provides a comprehensive standards platform for Web-resident sensors and imaging devices of all kinds, making such devices and their live and archived data potentially discoverable and usable via standard Web technologies. GeoDRM provides a geospatial digital rights management framework that supports all varieties of for-fee and for-free data and service provision, a key requirement for National Spatial Data Infrastructure development.

The OGC also has an active working group that addresses the difficult but imperative harmonization of standards critical to industries involved in the planning, construction, sale and management of buildings and physical infrastructure: CAD, geospatial technologies, 3D visualization, building information models, and industry foundation classes. The richness of this activity and the increasing acceptance of OGC's open framework inspire vendors to innovate, specialize, invest in niche markets (whose standards-supported growth justifies the investment) and, in general, work harder to satisfy our customers.

Virtually all application domains have benefited from this progress. In government, for example, there is a longstanding and increasingly acute need for data sharing within and across agencies and jurisdictions, and with constituents. The cost of sharing and analyzing data from multiple sources and managing them across multiple platforms has finally started to go down, which will save taxpayers billions of dollars over the next few years. The critical requirement for interoperability is recognized and built into the Federal Enterprise Architecture and the Geospatial Enterprise Architecture. As "transactional Web Feature Servers" based on the OpenGIS Web Feature Service Implementation Specification come into wider use, even the thorny problem of semantic non-interoperability will become much less problematic.

The benefits of interoperability-leveraged location intelligence extend to retail, finance, health care, hotels, telecommunications, insurance, media, real estate, restaurants, supermarkets and many other markets. e-Commerce business models involving both desktop systems and mobile devices are rapidly incorporating location-based services that implement standards to draw on multiple online data stores and spatial Web services.

This is an exciting time to be involved in the geospatial technology market. Users and providers of these technologies are benefiting from rapid advances in computing power, bandwidth, storage and broadband wireless coverage. Data streams are multiplying in number and in volume as new sensor technologies and tagging technologies (from RFID to GeoRSS) gain traction in diverse markets, and also as organizations begin to mine the geospatial value of "ordinary" data, such as that produced by credit card transactions. The world is catching on to the importance of "where" in information systems. And many of the key standards that make all of this work together are becoming widely implemented, even as new standards are being developed to address new needs.

The call to action is simply this: Become aware of OGC's standards; be sure the products you buy implement them; use them in creating solutions; and if it makes sense for your organization, become involved in their continuing development.

Published Thursday, September 21st, 2006

Written by Mark Cattini