The Top Ten of 2010

December 20, 2010

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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. The Geospatial App that Changed My Life
I looked over the New York Times' "ten must have Android apps list" the other day. I was not impressed. It included things like: Google Shopper, Google Sky Map, Soundhound... toys! Honestly, if the best we can do in the huge world of mobile is offer apps that turn your phone into a wireless trackpad/mouse, mobile hasn't made it quite yet in my book. The real apps which I believe can be useful for work numbered two: Evernote and QuickOffice.
But then there's NextBus. Not one, but two different people in my life have told me with a totally straight face that this website, about which I had told them, has "changed their lives." I don't mean to push NextBus over the other apps that serve up real-time bus info for those of us in the Hub of the Universe, Boston; it's just the one my friends and I use. I want to identify it as representative of that group of apps. Here in Boston we got most of our buses feeding out real-time data in late summer, and the whole line was covered by September. Then, the bus takers of Boston, the good friends of Charlie (who graces our Charlie Cards), all began to smile as app developers put those data into useable form. Now that it's 17 degrees outside, we smile more as we walk determinedly from the library or work or the bar just in time to catch the bus. Life is good.

2. OpenStreetMap (OSM) Gets Widely Recognized, Integrated: So What?
Everybody who's anybody in GIS this year announced some connection to OpenStreetMap. Esri put out an editor (that few seem to be able to run, based on comments I've heard and read  a few people commented to me they've been unable to run it [corrected 12/20]) in July. MapQuest began integrating OSM data in selected sites and invested $1 million and hired quite a few CloudMade staffers to beef up the map (blog post). Bing offered a hard to find layer of OSM data before ultimately hiring Steve Coast to its Bing Mobile team. It also gave some imagery to the OSM users to trace. More mobile apps are using OSM than ever, the best-known of which may be skobbler.

To date, the biggest impact is that in 10 countries it's possible to view an "open.mapquest.xx" layer, such as and as the default for use within MapQuest. The longer term impacts of these changes have yet to be felt. One thing is still true: as much as OSM participants love the idea and do the work, the reality of the datasets' and tools' limitations cannot be ignored. That fact, which comes up regularly, may be just the reason to put in energy to make both dataset and tools better in the near term.

3., Geospatial Platform, FGDC Geo Sandbox: I am Losing Interest
I'm finding it harder and harder to keep up with what the U.S. federal government is doing regarding geospatial. I can't honestly tell if it's because of communications issues (for example, see this All Points Blog [APB] post on and the Geospatial Platform) or that I've completely lost faith. Every new effort is supposed to eclipse the one before, but since none have lived up to the citizens' or the geospatial professionals' needs in recent years, I find it very hard to muster energy for the next big thing. seems to be in the process of being integrated with Many found themselves with a bad taste in their mouths when they thought Esri was doing the work (APB coverage). The "geoplatform" launched in two weeks and appeared, just as the nation needed one to make sense of the Gulf Oil Spill. Only later did anyone grasp that it was already in development as part of another effort. And based on our recent poll, few know of the project at all, despite recent requests for review of its key documents. The FGDC GeoCloud Sandbox was mentioned a few times during the year, but I only learned of it when the contractors attended our LI GeoCloud event. A trial of OSM tools by the USGS, described on a podcast, rounded out just some of the federal efforts this year. My head spins, but does not see the path forward with clarity or excitement.

4. Companies Lost
It was with some dismay that I heard the rumors around Cambridge, MA early in the year that MetaCarta was trimming down its workforce. Later this year Nokia acquired it. A poorly executed press release that popped up at the Esri UC led to more confusion, when Qbase took on the "consulting" business, leaving just the tech to Nokia.

Tele Atlas' name change up in Lebanon, NH to TomTom marked the end of many eras. Geographic Data Technology (GDT) and were staples in my early days of GIS. Now, few of the old guard are left and the data business seems to play second or third fiddle to automotive research and getting the last pennies from personal navigation devices (PNDs). (Is TomTom killing what was its cash cow?) The Tele Atlas website barely mentions TomTom: "Tele Atlas is the licensing business unit of TomTom N.V., the world's leading provider of location and navigation solutions."

Intergraph came and went. It was private when founded, then it went public, then it was private again for four years, 2006-2010. This summer, Hexagon of Sweden acquired it from the investor group that owned it. Of importance in our corner, Security, Geospatial and Intelligence (SGI), still part of Hexagon, is now run under a proxy board to keep it in position to capture U.S. government contracts.

I had very mixed feelings about Ushahidi's announcement about its partnership with Esri. I don't really know what that will mean for this grassroots effort that has since spawned CrowdMap, but I hope for the best.

5. Companies Found
I hear quite a bit about SimpleGeo in general tech publications and podcasts. Its leaders seem to be speaking quite a bit, too. But I am still unsure what the company will offer. No, wait, on December 8 (I am continuing writing on that day) two of its three services moved into public beta (APB post). It's sounding more like a Data as a Service (DaaS) solution that serves up data and POIs. Is DaaS to be the first big cloud service for geo? It sounds like it, at least in part because it's the most understandable use of the cloud for many potential users.

While SimpleGeo and other companies do a lot of talking (via blogs, interviews, etc.) another company I keep "finding" does very little of that. It seems to work more than it markets. And, yet, the name keeps popping up! Which geo company sent one of its people off to Code for America? And which geo company's CEO received an award from Common Cause? And, two NSF research grants (1, 2)? And had to change its name rather than fight a legal battle? Somehow, anytime I read stories about Azavea it is doing good and being recognized for it.

6. The Cloud: Still Hyped, Rarely Seen
Many, many electrons have been used this year to ponder the value and place of the cloud in geospatial implementations. My sense is, there is far more talking and writing about moving to the cloud than actual moving to the cloud. And, to be clear, I'm thinking about the newly minted version of the cloud, not "all that Web stuff" that came before.

Even as I write this article, (Dec. 6) comes word that one of the cloud vendors has moved out of beta (press release). SpatialCloud now offers two datasets streamed from the cloud on a pay-as-you-go model. The company blog notes one user: MapServing uses the imagery for its AtlasAlive on Demand, which is itself in beta. SpatialCloud joins Pitney Bowes Business Insights (PBBI, Directions coverage) and Europa Technologies (press release) which also described a vision for DaaS this year. WeoGeo was an early adopter of the cloud. WeoGeo's biggest (or at least biggest that it's shared publicly) to date: PBBI (press release).

The most outspoken advocate of doing real GIS in the cloud is perhaps Phillip O'Doherty, CEO of eSpatial. He feels strongly that moving desktop GIS functionality to the cloud will be the future (Directions article). Who's made that leap using eSpatial solutions? A few utilities and one or two municipalities, per the company website. There is motion, but clearly barriers still remain. (from SkyGone) offers well-known software stacks from the cloud. You can use ERDAS, OpenGeo, GeoServer, or MapServer. Or, with a license in hand, ArcGIS.
GIS Cloud App Store

Esri is offering up a website, services and data via its and ArcGIS Online sites. That array of offerings in those brands (though I think the ArcGIS Online name is being phased out) may itself act as a barrier to use. The data services including the Community Maps Program seem to be getting the most interest (if not the most use) at this point.

The best documented, most convincing use of the cloud I've seen was at our GeoCloud event, when Blue Raster described its temporary cloud-based implementation of ArcGIS Server. The project supported a limited time demand for maps for those writing grants for funds for new hospitals.

I could be wrong and I mean no disrespect to the organizations above, but the discussions of the cloud's success are far ahead of the implementations as we head into 2011. And I think that's okay. As the rundown of offerings above suggests, there are many ways to take advantage of the cloud, both as publisher and consumer of data and services. Only now are those different offerings becoming mature. That may mean that for the first time potential users can evaluate their fitness for purpose.

7. Open Data Extravaganza
The bus tracking app revolution can thank the open data movement that's spreading from city to city around the world. Consider this quick list: Toronto, Edmonton, Ottawa, Vancouver, Arvada, Portland, New York, San Francisco... I like the healthy competition of "my city is more open than yours" and the efforts to interest developers in making those data more useful. I wonder when the app contest will be superseded?

8. How Geo News is Distributed
It was probably just a few years ago when big companies, starting with Google as best I can recall, began a new method of communication with journalists. The focus was no longer the "press release" or even the "social media release," but rather an e-mail message or tweet on the order of: "I thought you'd want to know we just did something cool. Please see this blog post for details." I suppose they realized that even the most dedicated journalists could not keep up with the many, many blogs or twitter accounts hosted by those large companies. I know I can't!
The Definitive Guide to Social Media Releases

In some ways this method of delivering news is not that different from the press release, except that unlike a press release, you typically have to write something, rather than just publishing the release (few companies offer blogs with an obvious open license). I often, when the news is not that important and reasonably well described by the company, take the easy way out and put together a blog post titled, "Company X wants you to know." I quote the text in the message and point to the blog entry noted.

The news in 2010 is that more of the smaller companies are doing the same thing. Just like in the bigger companies, actual staffers write the blog posts, but mostly the in-house marketing staff does the outreach. Big companies outsource that second part to their press relations firms.

I don't much care how I get the news. The job of an editor (of a blog, magazine, podcast, etc.) is to pass on and possibly comment on content of interest, no matter how it gets to them. I will note that I prefer contact with actual staffers over PR firm reps. That extra layer of communication adds complexity, extra time and errors into my workflow.

9. The Beginning of the End of the Beginning of Check-ins
As I continue writing this article (it's Dec. 10 today), BrightKite, one of the early location sharing/check-in apps, announced it was phasing out check-ins in its new release and focusing on managing texting within groups. It'll be another year or more before we find out if that is a good idea, but it is a sign that check-ins are a commodity, one that only a few companies are turning into actual money.

10.     Augmented Reality Reality
This is really my colleague, Joe Francica's area of interest, but I keep an eye on it. I'm sorry, then, to report that I see few situations where augmented reality (AR, the overlaying of data onto a real-time scene) is that much better than other ways of displaying information. Since location determination is still only "so" good, it can still be very dicey for location apps. My students also highlighted, quite correctly, the myriad of safety issues related to real-time AR use when walking or driving. I've seen the results of folks walking or running while listening to iPods, as well as those trying to read their daily newspaper on their devices while walking to the subway. In short, I for one am still waiting for compelling use cases for AR and safe and effective hardware implementations. Looking through a smartphone is just the first baby step.


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