GIS' future is with crowds, clouds ... and 4-D

New geospatial technologies explore where no data has gone before

After years of development in the background, geospatial technologies are exploding — both in government and consumer markets.

Not that long ago, geospatial applications were tools primarily used by specialists who toiled in back rooms to make maps. Now, untrained users routinely access sophisticated geographic information systems via the Internet using anything from laptop PCs to smart phones and dedicated geospatial devices.

“It’s crowd and cloud,” said Mark Reichardt, president of the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC), a nonprofit standards organization. “We’re seeing this movement of geospatial and location-service functionality seamlessly into the business decision cycle and business tools and consumer services.”

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On the consumer level, GIS applications combined with Global Positioning System capabilities do the heavy lifting behind new smart-phone applications that users can employ to find the nearest Starbucks or get turn-by-turn directions to the closest gas station.

Government agencies also are starting to push geospatial applications out of back-room offices and onto mobile phones, as shown by a number of new applications demonstrated at the ESRI user conference in San Diego in July. 
The Pacific Disaster Center, a project that the Defense Department largely funded, showcased its newly released DisasterAware platform, which continually monitors information feeds from meteorological and geological agencies and delivers information and alerts in real time to subscribers. Users can share analyses and situation reports and can query the underlying databases of DisasterAware, which has a presence on Twitter. There's nothing new there — except that the system has been ported to Apple iPhones and iPads.

Why iPhones, especially when many agencies shun them? The Pacific Disaster Center is headquartered in Hawaii, and the Hawaii State Civil Defense uses iPhones and asked for the application. The Pacific Disaster Center plans to release an Android version during the next couple of months, apparently with DOD's approval.

Although the center doesn’t have plans for a BlackBerry version of its application, Research in Motion, the BlackBerry’s maker, demonstrated Freeance Mobile for BlackBerry at the conference. With that new application, agency users can download ESRI ArcGIS 10 data to their phones and edit maps and data, then send them back to the ArcGIS server. The application employs a server-side application and Java applet on the BlackBerry.

“GIS is being exposed on the Web, through browsers and through mobile phones,” said Jack Dangermond, ESRI’s president. “That’s making it more accessible and usable. It will spread through whole new audiences. Executives who want to look at sophisticated geographic information and do sophisticated geographic analysis can do so through a mobile device.”

NEXT: Into the Cloud

The cloud is beginning to have a major effect on geospatial applications and capabilities.

As private companies and government agencies increasingly create maps and data, storing them on the Internet makes them easier to access. “The Internet as a platform means that there are many different servers and services that are distributed at many agencies that I can access from my desktop,” Dangermond said. “It means that governments can open up their data for other people to use and become more transparent. This new Web platform means that there are thousands of servers that can be mashed up.”

ESRI launched a new site,, in June that demonstrates how effectively maps and data can be shared in a cloud environment.

“Geographic information will increasingly be put on the Web,” Dangermond said. “That will make for a more open society. It will mean that geographic information is embedded and used and available in more things. People will make decisions that are more thoughtful based on geographic reasoning. We’ll have a more spatially literate society.”

And more people will be consuming geospatial data in 3-D and even 4-D.

The slickest new product at the ESRI conference was a prerelease model of Canon’s mixed-reality system. The system, expected to reach the market in 2011, employs head-mounted displays, a computer and a table painted with registration patterns. Imagery and other data can be fed from the computer to at least one head-mounted display. When a user looks at the registration pattern, the stream of data registers and the imagery appears. Users can walk around the registration surface and, as they do, the imagery — be it mountainous terrain or a downtown cityscape — changes appropriately. 

And the system isn’t just a fancy visual effect. Canon’s demonstration showed how city officials could use the system to analyze and display airflow data, which is important in efforts such as urban planning and deciding where to put wind turbines.

Although several new rendering tools let users take 2-D geospatial data and render it in 3-D, EonFusion, from an Australian company named Myriax, offers rendering tools that go further. The product specializes in delivering interactive data flows that allow users to analyze the effect of variables over time. For example, you could display and analyze changing temperature patterns over terrain. The product also includes change detection tools that can take note of alterations in scenes, as in video sequences.

The explosion of 3-D and 4-D applications is largely the result of enhancements to the ESRI ArcGIS software. “In ArcGIS 10, we have 3-D viewshed tools,” Dangermond said. "We have solar tools so you can calculate shade and the effect of sunlight blocked by buildings. That’s going to open up a whole new field in geoscience, to be able to do analytics in 3-D. The bottom line of this is that the data model has been extended to 3-D, spatial analysis has been extended to 3-D, and visualization has become much more beautiful and fast.”

NEXT: On the Horizon

If cloud geospatial computing, 3-D and 4-D analysis, and integration with mobile phones are the hot new applications, what can we look for in 2011 and beyond? 

According to OGC’s Reichardt, his group is focused on two emerging technologies: Short Message Service (SMS) geotagging and real-time sensors.

“We have a working group right now that is developing an open standard for geoSMS, so that SMS messages can be geotagged,” Reichardt said. Apart from consumer applications, he said, such tagging would allow emergency services to see the location of someone sending an SMS message. “When there is a disaster, sometimes the communications channels are limited but still available, and sometimes SMS messages can still get through,” he said.

Reichardt said sensor technology is another burgeoning area, and Sam Bacharach, a consultant at WiSc Enterprises, a small company that provides engineering services primarily to DOD, agreed.

“I see a lot of live data in the future, what the intelligence community refers to as sensor feeds," Bacharach said.

A lot of the sensor data exists, but it’s not yet easy to integrate into geospatial applications. “I’m sure in Seattle there’s a website that you can find online, and you can see what the traffic is like at a given intersection,” he said. “But it’s not integrated with anything else. You may or may not know which direction the camera is pointed. If you’re not familiar with the intersection, you may be able to see that traffic is gummed up going one way and not the other, but you don’t know if it’s the way you’re going. That kind of information is going to be available.”

Bacharach said he has seen systems in development for DOD that can send live feeds from airborne cameras and render those images on 3-D models. “You can see at that given moment what’s going on out on the street in front of your building from sensors up in the air — an airplane or even a satellite,” he said. “Right now, they’re learning how to do those things, but they can’t do them in anything near real time. It currently takes at least an hour of processing, but over time, it’s going to happen.”

Bacharach also said he predicted more crowdsourcing of data, in which users feed data back into GIS systems. “I know there are places in Europe where the Open Street Map data — the center line of the road was derived by statistical analysis from reports from several thousand people — is actually a more accurate representation of where the road really is than what the authoritative data source has,” he said. 

Dangermond agreed that crowdsourced data is an emerging opportunity, though he cautioned against depending on it entirely. “Somebody has to do the verification of crowdsourced information,” he said. “GIS professionals need to learn how to manage it. It represents new challenges.”

And it’s not only geospatial data collection that will increasingly be put into the hands of users. Bacharach said that as GIS applications become more powerful and easier to use, their analytic capabilities will no longer be limited to GIS specialists.

“It is validation that what we’ve been sweating over for decades was actually worth sweating over, and we’re getting somewhere,” he said. “There are going to be fewer of us [GIS specialists] standing up in front of the city council briefing them on what the maps mean. They are essentially taking our brains and incorporating them in code.”


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