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Exciting times for location data and services

Paul Crisp

Another month and another opportunity to say once again that these are exciting times in the field of location data and services.

If you’ve been working in or around Big IT for as long as me, it is at least conceivable that this is the 20th year in a row that you will have heard the phrase but thankfully it doesn’t make it any less true.

It is also conceivably possible that you are thinking “I have no idea what you are talking about”. To try and explain, I’m not going to talk about computers. Or driverless cars. I could do but I won’t. 

My route into IT was an unorthodox one. I do have certification in TOGAFITIL, Agile/scrum and many other IT disciplines. I’m a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a chartered geographer but despite this specialism I really am a software and enterprise architect.  

My ‘in’ to our profession was via advertising, magazine production and photo editing in the days when the transition to desktop publishing was under way. I found I was enjoying the work with computing in a work environment more than I was enjoying arm wrestling with writers, photographers, publishers, and motorcycle couriers. In the John Major years, I was on an extended contract at the Home Office research and planning group, doing crime pattern analysis, which led to me working at Ordnance Survey, and to everything since.

In the misty steam-powered days when I started, digital mapping and location technology was essentially another route to producing paper maps and was a) ruinously expensive b) highly proprietary. 

The aura of those times still clings to the technology like moss to a rock, but it has been misleading for some time. Geospatial data was probably the original ‘Big Data’ – vast datasets, often unstructured (such as imagery) with huge quantities of valuable meaning but locked away and sitting using up expensive storage.

I had always adored maps as objects of art and science, but until quite recently they were essentially passive objects, albeit ones that people always respond to emotionally in a way that they never do to (say) spreadsheets.

This is partly because people are so good at pattern analysis and identifying what is wrong, or right, in a map, without even thinking about it. Further, we can identify relationships between objects and factor in data quality and consistency issues and make useful and accurate conclusions, almost instantaneously. 

Much of the work in geospatial and location-based services for decades now has been trying to bring digital computing power to bear on similar problems.

Clearly this is common to numberless threads in the use of technology in our lives. Geospatial technology is so important though because the old rule of thumb was that nearly all data has a location component and its truer now than ever. The sheer quantity of data each of us generates from the way we live – our phones, cameras, cars – and now our fridges doorbells and light switches – multiplies by the second.

Geospatial tech long ago had to embrace standards – not just relatively simple standards such as what shapes can be used to describe a real-world object, but also the meaning of the data – the things that can be expressed by an item of data that represents something in the world. How we describe our world, using shared concepts based on descriptions and formats that have meaning when exchanged between people and systems. And these concepts include the 3D and 4D – the passage of time, and the empirical quality of information. 

Many of these standards have been driven by the entry of major players into what used to be quite a specialist market, and there have been many entertaining industry body punch-ups spilling over from long running commercial disagreements.

But the heavy lifting was done. The standards exist, and are moving forward. They are a perfect fit for distributed and cloud computing.

It is telling that the UK government has a Geospatial Commission with a new strategy and budget set for the year ahead and a strategy running until 2025. This will have an impact on every aspect of public life in the UK and will provide an enabling framework for an explosion in business-to-business communication.

We have a formal relationship with six partner bodies (the Geo6): British Geological Survey, Coal Authority, UK Hydrographic Office, HM Land Registry, Ordnance Survey and Valuation Office Agency.

These six are world-leading organisations and also – and this is no coincidence – tied closely to the fundamental basis of the UK’s financial system which is ultimately based on the ownership and use of land. The UK is hoping to help economic development globally by offering a generic land ownership and use platform to developing nations, to simplify inward investment.

The reason this is all so exciting is that the computing resources available to us are rising exponentially, storage is cheaper almost by the moment, and we can bring to bear AI to address core issues of quality at the point of capture, and to improve our existing data holdings. 

The previously separate disciplines of mapping and field force automation (GIS) design (CAD0 contract and supplier management (COBIe) building acceptance and management (BIM) – and indeed gaming – are converging all the time. 

Microsoft’s new flight emulator game uses global cloud resources to interpret constantly changing satellite imagery and deliver it to gamers near live. Gaming companies are buying imagery capture companies and technology to produce enormously rich environments in a fraction of the time that was once necessary.

Location unlocks untold value and reveals - and helps to solve - core problems in the information we use to understand our world. Opencast has the skills and knowledge to help our customers to exploit this.

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