The Problem with Geospatial and the Coming Revolution: Part 1

Photo Credit: Lori McNee

Photo Credit: Lori McNee

I remember the days not so long ago when I was selling aerial mapping systems and software. My superiors would say that the horizontal market was saturated, but their "market research" showed huge vertical markets opportunities. “Pick one, travel, and sell”, they’d say. “Sell straight to the end-users”. So, I did as I was told, but with limited success and increasing frustration. I kept running into the same situation: the end-user only cared to make smart decisions faster. Geospatial data was simply another input into their decision-making process. They wanted a solution that took them to immediate action.

As a sales guy selling a machine that basically pumped out geospatial data, they got spooked by what it took to produce and support geo-information. That’s because there are roughly five or six stages for an end-user to get the information they want:

  1. Data acquisition with a geospatial sensor.
  2. Sensor data processing (e.g. georeferencing, point-cloud and imagery-product creation).
  3. Geospatial data creation (e.g. classification, orthophoto generation, or scan-to-3D model creation)  
  4. Broad analysis using geospatial data input in another specialized software. (e.g. GIS and/or BIM workflow input) 
  5. Analysis results are input into end-user process (e.g. compliance reports or work management system).
  6. End-user receives report and makes a decision to act (e.g. field crew work orders). 
  7. Repeat.

If you were an end-user, this is an expensive infrastructure to setup. You would have to invest in major capital purchases in sensors, computers, and specialized software licenses. You would need to hire different specialists for each stage to acquire the data, process it, analyze it. Then you would need to incorporate these results into your end-user work-process to (finally) make a decision that leads to action. No wonder end-users would rather pay large sums of money to a mix of consultants and geospatial firms! The stages and investment required are overwhelming! Most importantly, the time lag from acquisition to action was much too long. 

On the other end, makers of geospatial sensors and software generally sold generic mapping products to other specialists. Creating a specific workflow that directly addressed end-user requirements was deemed too specialized, too risky, and too small an opportunity. If your business was rooted in the last decade or so, this made sense, considering the expense to setup each stage. Why would you change it? Most companies didn’t and were too far removed from the end-user anyway.  

But we are now in the era of exponential technological growth and the democratization of information and things. We are witnessing the convergence of mobile, mapping, and robotics, which is knocking down the traditional stages, connecting companies directly to end-users, and completing the loop from survey to action faster than before. This is changing the world completely. Existing companies must adapt or die. 

(Part 2 will explore the convergence of technologies, why the biggest geospatial innovation are coming from computer vision research and not geomatics, and why the future is robotics.)

Ernest Yap (@geoernestyap) is the co-founder and President of ShapeTrace Labs. They are developing a cloud-based solution for construction managers that prevents errors from becoming fiascos, by comparing what was designed with what was built using mobile devices. They enable rapid quality control to verify built conditions before and after installations for an immediate scan-install-verify action loop. They are making sophisticated 3D technology easy by making it accessible and affordable, shifting the user role from surveyor to site worker, and doing weeks of analysis in minutes. We want construction managers to make smart decisions faster.