Saturday, December 14, 2013

Year's end reflection: State of spatial affairs

I have been following fortunes of spatial industry in Australia for more than a decade and, comparing to recent past, it seems that the industry is in a bit of a low right now. Not necessary in terms of revenues, or the level of activity, or overall relevance of the industry to the rest of the economy, but rather in terms of the level of excitement and enthusiasm amongst the participants. It is hard to tell why but things just seem to be lacking a bit of a spark.

The last time the entire spatial industry was abuzz with excitement was in 2005/06 when Google released its online map service. Back then, there was no conversation amongst spatial professionals and no presentation at conferences and seminars without a reference to Google Maps and enormous opportunity their release presented for the industry. And indeed, the follow up years were very good as the industry expanded in size (both in terms of the number of participants and attributed revenues) and in relevance, as it reached into a wide range of new fields and applications.

Although that level of excitement is rather unlikely to return any time soon it doesn’t mean that nothing interesting is happening in the industry right now. In fact, there are many developments to be excited about and although they may be happening on the fringes, it will not take long for them to filter through to the mainstream.

On the top of my list of the most significant developments is a giant leap in capabilities of web browsers - thanks in big part to consistent implementation of HTML5 in the latest versions. It makes it viable now to serve voluminous spatial data directly to the browser and render it in 2D as well as in 3D in real time. Animation and rich interactive visualisation of spatial data is now also possible, extending spatial industry well into the domain of interactive graphics and visual art.

SVG is back in favour and tiled vector data for base map presentation is the next obvious step in the evolution of online mapping applications.  Better browser capabilities are also enabling replication of desktop functionality in an online environment – opening up myriad of opportunities for Software as a Service (SaaS) applications with advanced spatial functionality.

In the quest for greater efficiencies XML based spatial data exchange formats, that traditionally supported spatial web services, have been substituted with more processing friendly formats, like for example GeoJSON. The latest flavour is TopoJSON that preserves topology of spatial data and allows for more compact description of geometries since common points are recorded only once.

Spatial data storage and transfer formats is the area where a lot of innovation will be happening in the coming years. This is necessary to fully utilise “big data” and High Performance Computing (HPC) processing capabilities for spatial data. Traditional file formats and relational databases with spatial extensions are not compatible with these new paradigms in computing.

The volume of spatial data keeps growing exponentially as data capture and processing capabilities increase. We now have spatial data generated from a wide range of satellite, airplane and drone deployed sensors, but also from stationary as well as mobile devices on the ground. Information is captured in a variety of formats, such as optical, radar, LiDAR or multitude of measured observations but also can be derived from secondary sources. All that data can be streamed and processed in real or near real time into a variety of useful spatial information. The opportunities to “value add” to that data are overwhelming.

The access to that vast information base is getting easier as well since more and more State and Federal Government agencies release their spatial data at no cost to end users and with no restrictions on its use. Roads centrelines, cadastre and address information, administrative boundaries etc. data can now be combined with crowd sourced information to improve the accuracy and reliability of data already in the public domain. The flip side of this development is that traditional “data reseller” model may no longer be a viable business option.

Positional accuracy of spatial data will keep increasing as higher resolution sensors come online and as alternatives to GPS are launched - for example, European Galileo program. It is also viable now to establish ground based private high accuracy positioning infrastructure, capable of working indoors.

However, that variety of spatial data and speed of its creation also creates big challenges. Mainly in terms of efficient versioning, cataloguing and archiving of data and making it easily discoverable. This puzzle is yet to be solved so, whoever comes first with an acceptable solution is destined to reap a big reward.

I have barely scratched the surface with the above list since the boundaries of spatial industry are so expansive - and hence the number of possible factors influencing the industry is so large. The important point to note is that spatial industry never operated in a vacuum – it has always served a “bigger cause”.  That is, the outputs created by spatial industry gave significant advantage to those who used them in pursuit of much grander objectives. In historical times, these outputs were maps for military operations and maritime endeavours. Today, it is a vast array of specialised tools, advanced theories and spatial information in myriad of formats that support almost every aspect of human activity.

As range of fields where spatial theory, data and tools can be applied expands, so does the industry. That “value adding” characteristic of spatial industry is the biggest opportunity for all the participants. However, it is also the biggest threat to industry’s identity, as various aspects of spatial technologies and practises get absorbed into much larger and/or more prominent industries and undertakings. As general level of education of the community increases, basic spatial skills and tools are becoming a commodity, like touch typing skills or word processing and spreadsheet software. Perhaps this is the biggest and the most far reaching development of all…

Whether you are in hardware, software and/or service side of the business, it is important to recognise not only what is happening in your part of the market but also in related fields. Take advantage of this quieter time to re-examine where your next big opportunity is likely to come from. As it happened with Google Maps, “the next big thing in spatial” may originate outside of the industry so, it is important to have a broad perspective to recognise the opportunities in advance and to get onboard early.

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