Let's face it: collecting and managing high resolution geospatial imagery is expensive and difficult. There are good reasons why only the largest, most monolithic organizations collect their own imagery. Smaller organizations have many of the same requirements as larger entities, but they often lack the budget necessary to implement solutions. Lower cost drone-acquired data is starting to lift the burden somewhat, but logistical and regulatory issues impede progress. The bulk of the world's remote sensing data is still acquired via specially equipped aircraft or imaging satellites; technologies that cost millions of dollars a year to operate and maintain. Managing and delivering the data adds still another layer of costs and complexities that are simply beyond the capabilities of small groups, yet in today's rapidly evolving world, it is more crucial than ever that decision-makers in organizations of all sizes have access to current and accurate information.
A path forward with imagery collaboratives
The combined pressures of small budgets facing big problems have caused the emergence of an interesting new business model: imagery collaboratives, groups of small to medium-sized organizations getting together and cooperating to share the costs of collecting and maintaining the data they all require. Structured this way, a collaborative can afford the resources necessary to hire planes, task satellites and host the acquired imagery. Collaboratives may be global in scope, or they may be focused on the needs of a single state, province, country or even specific market segments. Research communities who share common goals are also excellent candidates for the formation of imagery collaboratives. All that is required is a will to cooperate and share content, and a large enough overlap in requirements that collaboration makes sense.
Collaboration in the cloud
The benefits of cloud computing are now widely recognized. Lowered cost of entry, reduced infrastructure spending, economies of scale and improved efficiency of operations are all excellent reasons to move your IT resources to the cloud. Cloud computing has additional benefits for imagery collaboratives
- Neutral ground - Operating services in the cloud eliminates territorial disputes that may arise between collaborative members if services are hosted in-house at a member site.
- Managed services - Often the brunt of the management overhead will fall to the collaborative member with the most resources. Providers of cloud-hosted imagery services are often full service shops who can manage all the tasks associated with delivering imagery, so that each partner truly can be on equal footing in the collaborative.
- Flexibility - Collaboratives will, by their nature, have far more varying requirements than single organizations. Cloud service providers are in a much better position to adapt to changing circumstances.
Although it is a relatively new organizational model in the GIS industry, the collaborative model has many precedents, from industry sector councils and marketing boards to lobby organizations and trade groups. It is a well understood practice that allows participants to mutually benefit by creating something that is greater than the sum of its parts. The collaborative business model in the geospatial market is viewed by most as an evolutionary step towards a fully operational spatial data infrastructure for all communities.
Case Study: The Saskatchewan Geospatial Imagery Collaborative
Canadian provinces are an ideal case for imagery collaboratives, since they cover vast amounts of space, but have a relatively low population density to bear the costs. Imaging the entire province is cost prohibitive for almost any provincial organization. To solve these problems, stakeholders in the province of Saskatchewan formed the The Saskatchewan Geospatial Imagery Collaborative.
The SGIC describes their collaborative as "a partnership of organizations sharing knowledge and costs relating to acquisition and use of remotely sensed imagery for mutual and public benefit." It was formed in 2006 by 29 member organizations. Current membership has increased to nearly 40 groups. Members include crown corporations, provincial, federal and municipal agencies, industry and nonprofits, as well as the province’s two universities. The Saskatchewan Research Council serves as administrators for the collaborative.
The initial goal of the project was to acquire and publish high-resolution imagery covering the entire province for the members’ use, as well as lower-resolution data that would be available for public consumption. Data currently available to members includes:
- 10 centimeter aerial images for selected areas
- 20-30 centimeter aerial data for major metropolitan areas
- 60 centimeter aerial orthophotos for the entire province
- 2.5 meter SPOT satellite imagery for the entire province
Data available to the general public as well as SGIC members includes 10 meter satellite imagery for the entire province as well as a variety of vector layers as useful context information. Data volume for imagery collected to date sits at about 10 terabytes.
The imagery storage and access system, Flysask, is now in its second generation. It is hosted and managed using geospatial cloud products and services provided by CubeWerx at Blackbridge Networks in Lethbridge, Alberta.
Data is delivered to the cloud center on portable hard drives or directly uploaded to cloud storage and processed by the CubeWerx software into image pyramids. Since there are frequent updates to the data layers, it is important that the software be capable of rapid updates when new data arrives without any downtime for the services. The CubeWerx software provides access to the data through various Web services, including OpenGIS® Web Map Service, Web Map Tile Service, as well as commercial APIs such as Google Maps. Source data is also available in its native format, either through direct download, or through a "clip and ship" interface using the OpenGIS Web Coverage Service.
The value of provider-managed services
Imagery collaboratives as an emerging business model in the geospatial market are a compelling and effective means for many small to medium-sized groups to reap the benefits of Big Data geospatial intelligence while spreading the cost and risk widely. Cloud computing and provider-managed services are a natural fit with this model. They supply high-performance, reliable and secure services at a fraction of the cost of in-house implementations, with none of the infrastructure overhead or maintenance. Services are future-proofed, since cloud providers are constantly upgrading their hardware and software solutions at no cost or effort to the collaborative.