Technology can be fun. It’s new, interesting and exciting. Even better, technology can make work easier and faster. Most geospatial professionals know this and are deeply interested in the technologies they use to gather and manage data. At professional conferences and exhibitions, people discuss technology at great length. They want to know how it works, what it can do and when and where to use it.
From my point of view, however, technology is simply a means to an end. The focus should not be on the newest tools. Rather, it is more important to know what users need to accomplish their tasks. To do this, we first must understand how people work. Who are they, and what is their role in a project or enterprise? What information do they need? Where and how do they use it? And what is the end result?
The answers to these questions often illustrate how people use multiple types of data that come from different sources at different times. End users often need to combine and analyze the data to extract the needed bits. Only when we understand these processes can we ask the next question: How can we use technology to make their work easier?
The solution often lies in a technological ecosystem—a synergistic combination of core technologies to gather and manage data combined with software and tools for processing, analysis and delivery. Technological ecosystems built around geospatial information support the needs of and actions for large portions of an organization.
The use of integrated or blended technologies is one of the most important trends in the geospatial arena. By combining multiple technologies, integrated solutions provide new ways to work and reduce costs, accelerate schedules and supply high-value deliverables. And even though many geospatial practitioners are deeply interested in integrated technology, their clients may not share that passion. As long as information is complete, accurate and usable, the people using it may have little interest in how it got to them. That’s a key point for geospatial professionals to keep in mind. And it raises the next question: How can integrated technologies make work easier for their clients?
Technological ecosystems can be described at two levels. One level, technology fusion, combines sometimes-dissimilar technologies in a way that produces faster operation and more powerful deliverables. A second approach—largely driven by the Internet and information-savvy consumers—is the blending and sharing of information to support workflows and decision processes.
To a physicist, fusion combines atomic nuclei to produce a different element while releasing a large amount of energy—far more energy than went into creating the fusion in the first place. We can use an analogous description for fused technologies. Data from multiple sources is combined to produce new types of information. In an outcome described by Aristotle, the value of the combined information exceeds the value of the information from the individual sources.
The data sources can be based on very different technologies. For example, the Trimble MX8 mobile mapping system fuses data from high-precision GNSS, lidar, inertial sensors, imaging and vehicle speed and odometry sensors to capture georeferenced points and images of streets and other sites. Similarly, data from a GNSS receiver can be fused with simultaneous information from a seismometer to provide a complete picture of the vibration and 3D displacement caused by an earthquake.
Fused technologies such as mobile mapping or aerial imagery provide benefits such as high-speed data acquisition. They can gather an immense amount of information in a single visit or mission. These tightly-integrated solutions often provide smaller size and easier operation than non-integrated approaches, using comprehensive software to automatically merge (or fuse) the different types of data. The merging process, often fully automated, handles tasks formerly relegated to highly specialized software and technicians.
Information captured by multiple technologies is not always simultaneous. In many cases, the information can be blended with data from other solutions as needed. Consider the situation of a field GIS technician who uses a handheld GNSS to capture the location of a manhole. Perhaps because of safety or training considerations, the GIS technician doesn’t open the manhole, but can collect photos and other context information along with its location. Later, a different crew enters the manhole to inspect its contents and condition. This information is combined with the position data to feed a GIS or utility management system.
It seems that every day we see new combinations of technologies that are producing ever-larger volumes of data. That trend will continue. But these systems can only deliver data. The value of the data is not realized until it is converted to information and put to work, which brings us to the second aspect of the technological ecosystem.
Information, Platforms and Interconnection
Most end users don’t look at geospatial information from a technology standpoint. They are looking to solve a problem or make a decision and need information to do so. In some cases, they receive information automatically via their organization’s normal workflows. In others, the users must make a conscious decision and effort to obtain the needed information.
As an example, a utility manager may receive automatic daily summaries of reports from customers related to outages or quality issues. The reports can come from individual customers via automated call management systems or through Web-based services that enable them to report issues from smartphones or mobile devices. The incidents are plotted onto a map of utility assets, which was developed using handheld GNSS receivers to capture location and attribute data. The manager pays little attention to the technologies used to deliver the information, but does care that the information is accurate and pertinent to his or her tasks and decision processes. By using software to combine customer reports with the asset map, the utility can quickly isolate problems and provide crews with the location of the troublesome equipment.
Technologies to produce blended information can even provide new content and value. For example, an architect may not care if data for a digital terrain model (DTM) comes from RTK GNSS or optical survey methods, or even from an aerial imaging rover. But in a blended system, the terrain model can be combined with panoramic images from an imaging rover to produce a photorealistic 3D model that is overlaid onto accurate maps of utilities and transportation. The result gives the architect a much richer and more precise base of information from which to develop a design. When completed, the design moves to other parts of the technological ecosystem where it can support work for building information modeling (BIM), construction and project management, and even extend to operations and facilities management. Throughout the project, Cloud-based software and services enable the architect and project stakeholders to access and act upon the information with the confidence that it is correct and up-to-date.
It’s possible to list dozens of applications and industries that benefit from integrated technologies and geospatial information. Some stand to benefit more than others.
The Big Winners
The use of technological ecosystems enables organizations to make thorough and efficient use of their information. The companies that stand to benefit the most from integrated technologies are those that have the most complexity in their workflows. By definition, fused technologies combine or eliminate steps in the value chain or workflow. An operation with many pieces and processes stands to gain the most from reducing and streamlining its work. With their long, complex workflows that often involve multiple disciplines, industries such as agriculture, energy and natural resources, utilities, transportation, civil infrastructure and construction are prime candidates to benefit from integrated geospatial solutions.
In order to unlock these opportunities, geospatial professionals need to understand the final destinations and uses of the information they provide. This understanding enables them to select tools and processes that produce deliverables with the quality and accuracy needed to support the downstream processes. More and more, the best solutions will be a fusion of technologies in the field, office and Cloud. In a well-crafted blend of tools and workflows, the technology fades into the background, overshadowed by the value of the information it produces.