Consumer use of geospatial information has increased dramatically as simple, easy-to-use applications and up-to-date free data have become available on the Internet. Anyone with a laptop, tablet or smartphone can find addresses, view maps and images, and get directions to just about anywhere they want to go. As consumers have come to expect real-time access, businesses that use geospatial information are asking the question, “Why don’t we have real-time information to support our decision making?”

To address client expectations for faster and more reliable access to current geospatial data, companies are turning to cloud-based applications that access data on centralized servers. Sometimes referred to as GSaaS (geospatial software as a service), this technology is gaining in popularity because it provides flexibility in human resources, hardware and software. As a business’s requirements change over time, the GSaaS subscription can be adjusted to include more or fewer seats, different applications, better performance, faster support response and other features. There are multiple levels of service to meet the needs of small to large organizations. Local governments were early adopters of hosted systems because of the cost advantages and access to geospatial expertise.

Photo Science, a geospatial solutions provider with nine offices throughout the U.S., has developed several cloud-based options in response to its clients’ expectations for faster and better access to mapping data. “As technology evolves, the business challenge is to give the end user access to powerful servers, more data and a variety of software resources,” explained Jesse Glasgow, a manager at Photo Science responsible for the GSaaS program. “The overarching benefit that the cloud delivers is removing the limitations created by internal resources or infrastructure. By spreading the expense and pooling resources, a greater number of people benefit from more capable tools.”

In the area of human resources, GSaaS is attractive because it reduces the need to create new internal positions to handle fluctuations in work load. During times of economic uncertainty, it is preferable to contract with a third party for a defined scope of work rather than add to overhead by hiring additional permanent or temporary staff. Also, the learning curve can be decreased because a geospatial contractor specializes in developing these kinds of solutions. They have probably already done similar work for other clients and should be able to do the work more efficiently. Outsourcing GIS data maintenance activities is also an option for organizations that don’t have adequate internal resources. 

Frequent improvements in hardware make costly upgrades a reality for those who want to keep up with the latest technology and gain a competitive edge. Computing capacity through the cloud gives subscribers access to powerful servers that they might otherwise not be able to afford; this can be especially meaningful for small businesses. The hosting company is able to expand and contract computing capacity as needed, which is helpful in responding to emergencies, and is able to spread the expense of new equipment over multiple users.

Purchasing current software licenses can also be a large expense for government agencies and businesses. By subscribing to a GSaaS, they can purchase the number of seats that they need at the time and make changes as necessary.

Photo Science offers turnkey GSaaS through a combination of internal and external servers to make solutions available to subscribing clients, often those without in-house technical expertise. Other clients may need IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service), which is popular with those that already have their own software, developers and IT staff. By joining forces with other companies with complementary skills and resources, Photo Science is able to offer its clients a package that best meets their needs. 

Solutions can be customized for a particular user, such as the Environmental Geospatial Resource and Engineering Tool (EGRET) that Photo Science developed for Pepco Holdings Inc. (PHI), one of the largest energy delivery companies in the Mid-Atlantic Region. PHI staff uses EGRET to support environmental planning and permitting, engineering, real estate, and project management functions.

Photo Science also developed a tool called Virtual Online Inspection Checking and Editing (VOICE) that is being used by the states of Kentucky and North Carolina for orthophoto quality control and inspection. “We streamlined the QC process to make it easier for clients to access and check data in a truly transparent manner,” said Glasgow. “The end user can provide input, and the data production staff can see the comments real-time. QA/QC tools such as this are being requested much more frequently on larger regional and statewide orthophoto projects.”

Cloud computing provides the basis for geospatial companies to offer an endless variety of solutions to their end users, which maximizes the productivity of human resources, hardware and software. Access to the latest tools and data provides competitive advantages and increases the value of geospatial information for informed decision making.