The Top Ten GIS Stories of 2013

December 16, 2013

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Each year I pick out 10 events, ideas, themes, products, etc. that stood out over the preceding 12 months. So, in no particular order, here's this year's list.

1. There Can be Only One U.S. Commercial Satellite Image Provider

If you remember back ... there were three commercial imagery providers: Space Imaging, DigitalGlobe and Orbimage. Then Orbimage acquired Space Imaging and took on the name GeoEye. Then, this year, DigitalGlobe and GeoEye became DigitalGlobe.

Why all the merging? The latest iteration was driven by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s statements suggesting that there would only be enough funding for one company. The lure of government funds seemed to keep all three firms distracted from developing a substantial revenue stream from the private sector. While percentages increased, none of the companies found the “magic application” to pull in huge dollars from outside the government.

So, now there is one company, and if recent results are any indication, it will continue its quest to better balance its revenue base, build long-term relationships and find new ways to deliver timelier, higher resolution data at faster speeds.

2. Next Generation Remote Sensing

Just as DigitalGlobe finishes wrapping its arms around GeoEye, it must look over its shoulder for a pack of remote sensing gazelles. The small companies, with fresh venture capital, smaller and cheaper birds and shiny new, if untested, business models are redefining commercial remote sensing.

Among the gazelles:

None of these companies are providing too many details about how they plan to compete with U.S. and foreign satellite players, aerial imagery providers or the as-yet-unavailable-in-most-of-the-U.S. drone-based collection solutions. But stay tuned; they and their peers will be the talk of the remote sensing market next year.

3. The Promise of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs)

While in other countries UASs are carrying out important mapping and life-saving work, here in the United States we are still waiting on details from the Federal Aviation Administration on how exactly they can be safely and legally used. That did not prevent the vehicles from being the focus of GIS and surveying conferences, as well as dedicated UAS events.

During 2013 there were regular stories about privacy and safety issues. These issues will take on even more importance should UASs become part of our daily lives, as Amazon and others suggest they will, in time. And there were many stories of UAS use and misuse in war zones.

So, as we await the broader use of UASs here in the United States, where are the business opportunities? Education. There are dedicated private “universities” such as Unmanned Vehicle University serving those who want to engineer or pilot the crafts. There are also more traditional degree programs and an array of short courses and webinars. The key requirement these days for getting ahead of the UAS goldmine? A working credit card.

4. The Year of the MOOC

Those who cover education, including The New York Times, suggested that 2012 was the year of the massive open online class (MOOC). But in the world of GIS and geospatial technology we are a bit behind; 2013 was our year. We had a MOOC from Google on its mapping platform, a professional development MOOC for educators who wanted to use GIS in STEM classes, an introductory MOOC on online mapping that used Esri’s ArcGIS Online platform and a hard core MOOC that taught the basics of ArcGIS Desktop. Other MOOCs addressed geography, GIS and spatial topics in passing, including the  business strategy course I took.

What’s ahead? Well, if the broader education community saw 2013 as the year for a “response to” or “closer look at” the MOOC, we in GIS and geospatial technology can expect some of the same close examination. In particular, educational and other institutions need to think hard about the goals of these courses and their potential return both in terms of cash and mission. As we wrap up 2013, National Geographic is prepping its first MOOC (for educators) and I’ve gotten wind of at least one private institution planning a 2014 GIS MOOC.

I personally am “pro” MOOC. But then, I’m “pro” most new ideas in education. Let’s try them, see how they work and for whom. The MOOC is not a magic bullet, just like an iPad in a second-grader’s hands is not a ticket to Harvard. Still, both have potential as teachers and learners figure out how best to use them.

5. Apple Maps Makes a Comeback to “Good Enough”

Last year many readers were unhappy I didn’t note Apple’s giant missteps with the launch of Apple Maps in my top ten. I was not sure of its long-term impact on our industry. I like to think I had some special insight, but I can’t say I expected this news: Apple Maps is doing ok.

What I did expect was that the situation would sort itself out like other Apple “errors.” Remember “phone gate”? Remember how we giggled at the name iPad? That all sorted itself out, too. Why? In part, I believe, because we humans are fundamentally lazy and like shiny things. So, when Apple made its mapping app the default on its devices, we started using it. I’m not immune; I use Mac Mail and Safari on my MacBook. Why? They came installed and frankly, they are “good enough.” I’m sure if I were a heavier or more savvy user of a mail program or browser I’d notice their failings, but I’m not.

And, so it is with mapping apps. Remember when Google replaced its commercial data provider (Tele Atlas, back then) in the U.S. with its own data? For a while there was rage. I even checked routes against MapQuest or OpenStreetMap for about a month or two. Then, Google Maps matured to “good enough” and I used it as I had before. I still do. The best cure for any of the huge failures is time. And, so it will be until humans are not lazy and don’t like shiny things.

6. MapBox and CartoDB: the New Darlings of Online Mapping

Just as there are gazelles popping up in the remote sensing marketplace, there are gazelles popping up in the online mapping space. I saw increasing use of MapBox and CartoDB in 2013 on hobbiest/activist blogs, media sites, and even on government websites.

How are these solutions distinguishing themselves from other online mapping solutions? I’m no tech or business expert but here’s my sense:

  • modern APIs
  • pretty mapping data
  • freemium model
  • quick startup
  • heavy use of open-source software, open data and GitHub
  • limited use of the term “GIS”

Both companies have had some big wins this year (APB coverage of MapBox, APB coverage of CartoDB). If you are a student or a professional looking to enhance your skill set, I’d spend some time with these hosted platforms.

7. Telling Stories with Maps

I was taught that thematic maps tell stories. I quickly learned those stories were not necessarily the ones with a beginning, a middle and end. Esri popularized the term “story map” over the last few years with a nod to both the linear narratives and more traditional simultaneous visualizations. Esri offered dozens of timely story maps in 2013, including those focused around topics in the news (JFK anniversary) and holidays (Thanksgiving dinner). There was even a story map contest at URISA this year to help show how even novices could easily create a map. During a one-hour workshop at an education event I made my first story map.

But the technology is bigger than just putting photographs (or videos) on maps and the potential of such stories goes far beyond one company’s implementation. Just the fact that an organization called MapStory popped before Esri’s Story Map launch is testament to that fact. So are media features like The New York Times’ mind blowing Snow Fall (2012) story on a mountain rescue or the Guardian’s feature Walled World on walls that divide populations. This year Pinterest added a mapping feature and Caterina Fake launched Findery, her tool to link places and stories (though this is a “leave a note in the ether” type solution).

2013 was the year of the story map and a solid reminder that this form of communication is now part of our and our children’s technology literacy.

8. Status Quo

Open Source - The development and use of open source geospatial technology continues to grow; see # 6 above. What was the biggest non-technical news in this arena? OpenGeo was spun out as an independent company and renamed Boundless.

Location-based Services (LBS) - In 2013, new LBS apps launched each week and the term “geofence” got lots of play. Still, things were mostly calm. What was the biggest news in this space? Esri launched the beta of its GeoTrigger service, a year after acquiring Amber Case’s Geoloqi.

Cloud Computing - I think the tech world and the geospatial technology world have cooled to the term and now see the cloud as just part of “computing.” The term “big data” is heading down the same path. And, the two are coming together. Within geospatial, new-to-us players such as Actuate (an analytics software provider and a strategic member in LocationTech), Cloudera (enterprise data management) and MongoDB (open source spatial database management tool) are knocking at the doors.

Augmented Reality - Save a few bits about experimenting with Google Glass (high end shopping) and a great effort by the Tokyo Aquarium, augmented reality seemed to stay in suspended animation in 2013.

9. The Government Shutdown

The U.S. government, except some specially selected offices, shut down for 17 days in October. There was quite a bit of nervousness and wringing of hands. Some geospatial users could not get access to their routinely needed data sites. But the biggest impact, it seems, related to two events planned for the fall that had to be rescheduled: USGIF’s GEOINT Symposium and MAPPS’ new Geospatial & Engineering International Conference.

I’m not sure if the shutdown helped those outside our industry realize the value of the federal government’s geospatial data and services or suggested that the citizens can get along fine without them. Perhaps when these event rise from the ashes next year that topic will be raised.

10. Coolest Thing I Saw All Year

It’s probably not what you think; it’s GeoJSON automatically rendering on GitHub (using Mapbox technology).

While the geospatial techies are all excited, GIS users and managers should be excited too. Why? Because it means if you have some data encoded in GeoJSON (or any JSON), and you commit it on GitHub (Huh? Directions Magazine coverage) there is a map. Let’s be clear: there is no “drag and drop” to make a map, there just IS a map. (APB coverage)

Image by Leo Reynolds licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA.


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