Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Competitive advantage with free GIS tools

For years I have been advocating the advantage of matching the tools to the job, that is selecting those that are “fit for the purpose”. Nothing more and nothing less, because it is either a waste of money or you end up with inadequate solution which will not deliver expected results. Logical, but not very common approach in corporate life…

Why would you spend thousands on something that you can use for free to get the job done? Many apply this principle in their private lives but do not extend it to their business activities. There is always more than one way to skin the cat, and very often applying your “old toolbox” to new problems will simply not work (eg. big data in GIS!). In a competitive world, or where resources to accomplish the task are scarce, only the smart ones, who are able to think outside the square, will get the job done and will advance… 

In particular, very often organisations buy packaged solutions, which come bundled with extensive range of functional tools, but which are rarely used, if at all. Microsoft’s Word or Excel are classic examples (not picking on Microsoft specifically but they are a good point in case that everybody can relate to). It could be argued that 80% of users utilise less than 20% of built-in functionality. But organisations are paying the full price for all of them. As an old saying goes, “No one was ever sacked for buying Microsoft Windows”… because it is presumably the least risk option. The same can be extended to many GIS solutions…

It could also be argued that the larger the organisation, the less likely it is to look for cheaper alternatives. Why? It is “easy” for the IT department to deal with limited number of software, easy for buyers because they are buying “the brand”, easy for users because their skills are transferable to the next job… But spare a though for what it does to the bottom line of an organisation. Don’t get me wrong, there are many, many cases where buying the whole package makes perfect sense, even financial, but it can also be argued that in many more cases this is simply overkill. The issue is particularly relevant for smaller organisations.

What if you could get 80% of functionality of “branded solutions” (functionality you really need) for 20% of the price? The answer: you could actually end up with 4 times the functional capability of your competitors who are paying the full price for one solution!

Modern GIS, BI, reporting dashboards and similar solutions do not have to be expensive. If you are a small business, or organisation that is conscious about the costs, you can deploy solutions at a fraction of the cost of branded software used by the big business.

Take for example this single page, satellite imagery catalogue created with free Google Map and Google Fusion Tables. It includes attribute and time range filters as well as location search. It is capable of handling of up to 100,000 items:

Software cost: $0
Infrastructure cost: $0
Maintenance cost: $0* (until Google deprecates the service)
Development cost: “a few” hours

Simple, yet delivering in full the core search functionality of bigger systems that would cost tens of thousands to deploy and maintain. It allows users to quickly determine what imagery is available for a given location and within a given time frame and under what licence. Individual scenes can be inspected to determine precise coverage extents (ie. scene footprint) as well as cloud density (ie. preview quicklook) before following up with an email enquiry about the access to the information. 

The main game is not about “cutting the corners” or blunt “cost cutting”. It is all about being smart and applying “fitness for purpose” principle… You can gain a lot by talking to people who provide solutions and not only those who sell branded software.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Maps as dataviz tool

Maps are one of the oldest information visualisation tools and have been around for quite a while. There were times when map appearance was confined by application of the strictest rules in production, and of course the technology of the day, but once the capacity to create maps extended to general public maps as a data presentation medium blossomed in thousands of varieties. This is why working with maps is so exciting today…

Map is an abstract, graphical representation of the reality. These days that reality can be quite complex - we are after all capable of processing more and more data into information. So, as the result, there is ever increasing need to summarise and present complex spatial information in a meaningful and easy to comprehend way. This pushes the boundaries of modern cartography into seemingly unrelated disciplines of art, graphics, animations, etc.

A lot can be written on current trends in modern cartography but here is just one example of an innovative approach to presenting complex information on a map: 33 years of hurricane paths.

Opinions were divided on whether it was still “a map”, and some expressed a view that this presented “incorrect perspective on the world” but those who have open minds on modern cartography, and who have any experience in dealing with presentation of complex information, will undoubtedly be full of praises for the author of this “creation”!

Link to animated version (7.7MB): Hurricanes Flip-Book Style

Monday, September 3, 2012

ACT implements free data initiative

Following federal government and larger States, ACT government is the latest convert to the cause of liberating vast holdings of spatial and non-spatial data in hope of invigorating local business to develop innovative solution and use the data for better decision making. And in the process, to stimulate economic activity and increase the number and quality of services offered to the local community. Built on Socrata platform dataACT is an open data service initiative that will enable individuals, businesses and people in the public sector to access, explore and build upon existing government data sets.

dataACT has three core components which make it probably the most functional of all the initiatives in Australia. In particular, data is available in a machine readable and consistent range of data formats. This enables users to download static datasets in ready to use formats (eg. JSON but unfortunately, stopping short of being a dynamic web service). Secondly, the platform includes some basic data visualisation tools to make graphs or maps that can be embedded on external websites. This enables the creation of customised views of datasets for particular community needs or specific initiatives. However, the most exciting news is that data is uploaded from across the ACT Public Service through data integration systems that will update individual datasets appropriately. So, there is a commitment from day one to keep the data up to date.

Initial set of released data is only a teaser but it is a good start. Let’s hope that the ACT government will not back on its commitment to the project and take a leading role in liberating the data that would really make a difference – for the local spatial community it means access to street data, cadastre information, address files and/or geocoding service, property transactions data (current and historical), 2m contours / DEM, topographic data, tourism database and high resolution imagery over the Territory. Don’t get me wrong. There was a time when a release of information on “toilet locations” generated a furore (and many goods apps were created as the result) but if the expectation is to make a significant and lasting economic impact, more useable data needs to be put in the public domain.

Other data liberation and spatial data infrastructure initiatives seem to be fading fast after the initial flurry of activities, including myriad of hack-a-tons with rich prizes for participants. It is, after all, a hard work which requires more than just “sticking a few csv files on a web page” and hoping for the best. Let’s be brutally honest about it, it would be hard to name a single “public data mart” initiative in Australia that can really claim a success so, there is a big opportunity for dataACT to demonstrate how it should be done.

Related Posts:
What's the benefit of gov data warehouses?
Free data a GFC casualty
Governments intensify free data efforts
UK unlocks vaults of spatial data