Do the “Hot Topics” in Geospatial Unite or Divide Us?

June 22, 2011

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I have to admit my trepidation about this year’s NYS GeoSpatial Summit, held June 15-16 in Skaneateles Falls, NY, was warranted. Besides a lovely venue and a single track format, the event was to a large degree “just another GIS conference.” In previous years there was a nice mix of geospatial and specially chosen “off-topic” topics. The attendees this year did hear from speakers whose names are not on the “regular conference list” and the mixture of topics did keep things interesting. Toward the end of the day the mood took a turn toward divisive. But let’s start at the beginning.

I will attempt to summarize each of the seven presentations in a sentence or two.

Learon Dalby, GIS program manager for the Arkansas Geographic Information Office (AGIO), was the featured evening reception speaker. He crowdsourced questions from the audience ahead of time and answered them on-site. The whole Q&A is online.

I was asked to speak about location-based services. I tried to highlight the broadness of the current and future hardware, applications, location determination, database and connectivity solutions. My goal was to encourage GIS professionals to keep an eye on this area for potential deeper use of it in their day-to-day work in the public and private sector.

Max Baber, director of Academic Programs at the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation, stood in for its president, Keith Masback. He reviewed the mission of the organization, invited attendees to its GEOINT event and illustrated the significant value of geospatial intelligence, for defense and military uses and beyond.

Nicholas de Monchaux, assistant professor of architecture and urban design at UC Berkeley, described how GIS can add value in planning the urban environment.

Kyle Schmackpfeffer, director of commercial and responsive systems at ITT Geospatial Systems, introduced the company and detailed exactly how imaging sensors are made and how they work.

Alyssa Wright, product manager, stood in for Chris Holmes, president of OpenGeo. She introduced the company and detailed the new GeoNode product and its potential use for spatial data infrastructure (SDI) implementations.
Michael Dobson, president of Telemapics, explained why there are so many errors in today’s maps and why only a combination of methods to gather and update geodata, including crowdsourcing, will generate the best maps. We, the geospatial community, are the ones who can make that best data, not Google or its peers, he concluded.

The three morning presenters were featured in a panel before lunch and the three afternoon presenters formed a closing panel. I continue to be amazed that even specific questions from the audience posed to a single speaker, brought interesting and valuable perspectives from other panelists.

Among the topics raised by the audience for discussion by the morning panel were payment for government-created data, privacy as a reason to avoid use of location-based services and my favorite, regarding how technology use is impacting young people’s spatial abilities.

The questions to the afternoon panel included the request to each panelist to explain how their topic (satellite remote sensing, open source software and crowdsourcing, respectively) could enable storm sewer management. Most, however, focused on Dobson’s exposѐ on crowdsourcing. His presentation was the best, most thought-provoking, and most relevant of the day.

The closing question described how the “Where crowd” at WhereCamp DC, held this past weekend, rejected any sort of authoritative players and their data. The question was essentially, “How do we include that group in our work?” “Anyone who is not part of the solution...,” began Dobson, and you know the rest. He went on to reiterate something I’ve heard lately from folks with more experience in this industry than I - that the “Where crowd” is only now inventing/realizing/learning what geospatial professionals already know.

A similar sense of divisiveness appeared in other discussions, as I consider the event as a whole. While there was a general respect noted for OpenStreetMap, its lack of support for large uploads and limited license (there is a new license in place, but the transition of content from the old to the new is challenging and will take some time) helped draw a line in the sand. Google’s sometimes laughable process to keep its maps up-to-date for its advertising business put a line between its data and platform offerings and those of professionals. Even the Esri Community Mapping program got its lumps for its lack of a formal (and simple) way to update the data. To be fair, Esri made it clear to me last year at the User Conference that topic was on the docket. (APB coverage)

I left the event not feeling enthused about geospatial and its impact on the world, but wondering if the topics discussed reflect more of a splintering than a unification of geospatial technologies. The discussions of LBS, geospatial intelligence, planning, satellite remote sensing, open source and crowdsourcing made me feel more like the geospatial community players are taking off in many directions rather than coming together to find and use our tools and data for their highest purpose.

Perhaps it is a healthy frustration. There are huge steps being made in all of these areas (and others) each month and year. The frustration and perhaps division I see may only reflect the lack of patience of geospatial practitioners. Why is the “Where crowd” not “with us” on some efforts? Why isn’t OpenStreetMap the perfect crowdsourced map of the world? Why are Google’s maps not so good? Why isn’t the Community Maps program further along? The common answer is that all of these efforts, along with the technologies and licenses that support them, are made by people. And, people take time to learn new technologies, evaluate their worth and change them to reflect the times. And, those same people get frustrated when that change does not happen quickly enough.


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