How will the geospatial industry change in the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

July 1, 2021

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The geospatial industry exists in a strange dichotomy. On the one hand, geospatial data has never been more plentiful, data collection has never been more precise or connected, and analytics aided by cloud computing, AI and machine learning have never been closer to real-time. On the other, the geospatial industry has been slow to harness its own power. We are still largely involved in collecting and serving up data, in silos, to other industries that are transforming that data into applicable knowledge and rushing forward into a tomorrow unlike any we have ever known. It is the Fourth Industrial Revolution, in which "human, physical and digital environments are merging, leading to unprecedented societal changes." In this brave new world, the geospatial industry has been called “the much needed fourth pillar (along with AI, IoT and Big Data).”  

But what exactly is our role in this revolution and how do we play it?  

We could continue to focus on the technology of data collection, storage, and management. 

We could continue to improve data analytics within our corporate silos. 

We could continue to focus on the minutiae of mastering our GIS. 

Or we could transition from data providers to knowledge centers, increasing our value across private industry and answering the call by global organizations to partner with leaders at all levels of society in  addressing serious systemic challenges, like climate change, economic inequality, and geopolitical uncertainty.  

In January 2020, a discussion document outlining a global Geospatial Knowledge Infrastructure circulated through the halls of the UN. The document, “Advancing Role of Geospatial Knowledge Infrastructure in World Economy, Society and Environment,” presents an ambitious way to harness the power of geospatial intelligence to benefit human societies across the globe, primarily by moving away from a spatial data structure to one of knowledge available on demand to virtually everyone. The figure below, from the discussion document, illustrates these different approaches. 

GKI is a grand vision based on shared databases, standardized formats and partnerships between industries and governments at global and local levels, for which, quite frankly, the U.S. and many other nations aren’t completely ready. (After all, we’ve been debating Universal National Parcel Number Compliance for years, without successful implementation!)  

But, ready or not, this vision illuminates future trends for which our industry must prepare. Data democratization is already at hand. Accenture encourages clients to start training every employee as technologists, solving their own problems with the power of on-hand technology. Crowds source and use their own data. The transition to GKI is coming – whether cooperatively across nations and the public-private sectors or driven by individual industries for their unique consumers.  

To stay relevant, we need to develop our skills in the areas most likely to grow in the next 5-10 years: 

  • GNSS, 5G and indoor positioning  
  • Sensors, especially miniaturized lidar (now available on the iPhone 12 Pro
  • On-the-fly spatial data analysis and predictive analysis in the cloud 
  • Automation, AI, and machine learning  
  • Digital twins and Smart City technologies 
  • The integration of all business systems with GIS  

We also must begin to consider the larger role our industry might play in a more connected tomorrow, and how we as individual geospatial professionals want to contribute. It’s ok to begin by dipping in a toe and testing the water to find your niche in tomorrow’s landscape. There are a number of introductory resources at DirectionsMag to help. 

Free Webinars (generally 30-60 minutes) 

Overcoming GNSS Asset Data Collection Challenges with GIS Apps & Laser Offset Workflows 

Business Leaders Turn to GIS to Understand the Impacts of Climate Change 

Eliminating Data Silos: Integrating Enterprise Systems with ArcGIS 

Exploring Digital Twins in Urban Planning and AEC 

GIS & Aerial Data: Transforming Smart City Workflows in 2021 and Beyond 

 Insights for Smart Cities: Combining IoT Sensors and Applications for Better Situational Awareness 

Introducing ArcGIS Velocity - Esri’s new, cloud native capability to analyze real-time and high-volume geospatial data 

ArcGIS Notebooks – Using GIS and Python Notebooks for Workflow Automation 

Search the webinars archive to learn more about the topics of interest to you. 

Reposted from The DirectionsMag Geospatial Community Blog, an extension of Directions Magazine. Visit us for daily geospatial news, exclusive articles, geospatial webinars, and podcasts. If you are interested in contributing, please email


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