Technology Convergence, Market Horizontalization and, <i>Voila</i>: Information Fusion

January 25, 2008

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Some of us can remember when telephone, print media, film, radio, TV, phonograph, photographs and computer data (what little there was) were treated as separate or "stovepiped" technologies. Over the last several years, technology convergence has resulted in a new generation of multimedia and multimode communication products. 

Similarly, in the geospatial industry there was a time when remote sensing, photogrammetry, GIS, CAD, AM/FM and navigation were different vertical markets served by different technology providers. Now these various geo-enabled technologies are converging and their respective markets are becoming more horizontal. In order to survive in this dynamic and competitive market environment, software vendors are working to break down the old market stovepipes. Stovepipe solutions in the geospatial industry are now seen as simply artifacts of each technology's inherent or proprietary limitations.

Through technology convergence, the blending of markets, the effective use of standards, and increased bandwidth, geospatial data and service providers can deploy more comprehensive solutions that allow the user to access, query and visualize geospatial content from many distributed sources. New applications allow the user to merge - or fuse - the geospatial content in numerous ways. For example, mashups are all about integrating and fusing content from multiple sources into new applications. Fusion is all about combining different types of content, such as traditional 2D digital maps, GPS, satellite imagery and sensor observations, into information that is tailored for specific users of the information. The same content can be fused in different ways to solve different problems. Those who speak of information fusion speak of decision making models, human factors and heuristics. These apply in varied ways in different market sectors.

Software industry experts speak about the consumer's desire to easily run applications, quickly discover and use content, and solve immediate problems. This is why navigation applications are hugely popular. Other applications are emerging that require more complex information fusion, such as navigation applications that deliver information about stores, restaurants and traffic volume. Such applications run on devices ranging from a desktop to a mobile or cellular device.

For disaster management, often a life and death matter, information must be provided when needed to the correct authorities in the required format. This community tends to speak about "data sharing," which is another way of speaking about information fusion.  Disaster management professionals have extensive command and control process and situation awareness requirements that mandate the use of effective information fusion. The fused information elements must be up-to-date and about the real world, and thus sensor fusion and location services play an important role.

For scientific research, data mining, change detection, "fuzzy measures" and multiple inputs into computer models are topics of interest. Here, too, sensor fusion is important. A universal XML encoding system for scientific data (see the new OpenGIS Observations and Measurements [O&M] Encoding Standard), used in conjunction with online publishing and cataloging of stored and live data sources, could have a revolutionary effect on research that involves geospatial data.

Encoding standards like O&M are critical. Data fusion depends on our digital devices knowing how incoming bits are organized. Bit streams need to carry self-describing metadata with them in standard schemas. A client's query needs to be understood by a server if the server is to respond to the query, and the client needs to be able to decode the response. Thus, fusion is all about standards. In the geospatial domain, the key standards are OGC Web Services standards and related ISO standards.

With the foundation of OGC and ISO standards (and underlying W3C, and OASIS and other Web services standards) now in place, applications have the ability to better exploit the value of geospatial content fusion. Developers are employing content fusion in consumer applications that mix maps, Earth images and 3D with various other types of content. Fusion is central to "integrated practice" and building information models (BIM) in building-related markets such as architecture/engineering/construction (AEC), real estate, mortgage and insurance.

Street maps, Earth images, aerial 3D views of cities, street level virtual cityscapes, location information and location sensitive ads are now available to users who have no formal training in geospatial technologies. Most of these services are free, with revenue coming to the providers through advertising. Or sometimes the services are free up to a point, with revenue coming to the providers through provision of more in-depth information or specialized services. Overall, companies are increasing the information content of their products and services.

Companies providing geospatial products and services that enable content fusion would like to keep much of their offering proprietary, but competing on the Web often involves providing something of value without charging for it. Companies know they must find ways to open their platforms selectively to reap the benefits that open systems afford vendors, and to offer the benefits that open systems afford users.

The trend toward openness is also beginning to change the way science funders and fundees do business. Scientists usually do not published their raw data, and yet the benefits to science of sharing data - particularly geospatial data - are extraordinary:
  • Improved transparency regarding methods and semantics
  • Improved verifiability of results
  • Improved awareness of available data
  • Improved opportunities for longitudinal studies
  • Improved ability to reuse or repurpose data for new investigations, reducing redundant data collection, increasing the value of data and creating opportunities for value-added data enhancement; cross-domain use of data (data fusion)
  • Improved opportunities to collaboratively plan data collection efforts to serve multiple purposes
  • In the case of data with a location component: improved ability to discover spatial relationships (data fusion)
  • Improved ability to introduce data into computer models that use multiple inputs (data fusion)
  • Improved return on investment of research dollars, and improved ability of research funding institutions to do due diligence and policy development
Knowing what data to share and what data not to share is a balancing act, but in business and research, the game is clearly moving in the direction of openness. In both domains, of course, security, access, liability and intellectual property rights - implemented in automated service chains - are becoming very important policy and technical requirements.

Technology convergence, market horizontalization and information fusion are very real phenomena, and powerful determinants of the future, in the geospatial domain as in other domains. Consensus standards organizations provide a key vantage point for observing these trends, and a fulcrum for shaping them.


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