A.J. Clark is President, Thermopylae Sciences + Technology. (File)
For years, the defense community dominated the Geospatial Information Systems space. Thousands of analysts were trained on the latest systems for annotating imagery, extracting elevation data, and indicating highly accurate points where weapons might need to be placed in anticipation of battle.
As the GIS community grew, the demand for satellite imagery came only from a highly scientific and well-trained group of specialized users. Oftentimes, analysts could gain access to that imagery only though government personnel who held security clearances.
This started to change in the late 1990s as commercial imagery became more prevalent. More recently, MapQuest, Google Maps and more commercial mapping technologies have become readily available. Now the lines between proprietary federal government systems and open commercial systems are blurring as geospatial visualization becomes a part of daily life.
When CEOs get bright ideas about using a map to make better decisions, improve the bottom line or improve the efficiency of the workforce, they usually don’t have a GIS office to put the idea into practice. Today, they no longer need to.
The more technical elements of GIS are growing easier to leverage thanks to open standards for sharing spatial information. Access to tools like Google Maps allows a conduit for many companies to access detailed imagery and connect it with their existing systems. The secret to success for making geospatial technology work for a business lies in tailoring products that exist -- satellite imagery, aerial imagery, web-based geovisualization tools rather than building new technology.
GIS and spatial tools leverage one another closely, but they are rapidly evolving to the point where this broader demand does not require users to be GIS specialists. If a company has a GIS office and a collection of geospatial data spanning decades, it must work to meld the new requirements with the legacy data. Today, however, the costs of building or acquiring geospatial data are drastically decreasing. This is why it is imperative for leaders to evaluate their objectives with spatial tools carefully, and decide when to reuse data and when to collect new data. Sometimes the cost of connecting to an older GIS system is so great that starting with newer technology will yield greater return on investment and efficiency.
Other technologies have had this transition. The use of GPS, the evolution of cell phones to play multiple roles in of our lives, and the power of personal computers to tablets and “phablets.” The most exciting part about this is that all of the hard work done by the GIS professionals to create content still needs to be done, but now a much broader community can benefit from it as managing it becomes much simpler. It’s like using a spreadsheet for enterprise resource planning or for customer relationship management. When using a spreadsheet becomes simple enough for many more users, there is a much greater return on the investment associated with the data.
Spatial tools are well on their way to becoming a standard part of any organization’s day-to-day business processes. While there is a distinction between experts from the foundational community and more casual users, the segment of everyday GIS consumers is growing rapidly. They are now working to tailor GIS information to their specific business processes. The use of GIS in the commercial sector will continue to grow with the rise of consumers that expect 3D interfaces, expect updated maps with street view detail, and are accustomed to seeing the latest imagery on a quarterly versus yearly basis.