31 Aug 2016, 22:33

The Geospatial Continuum: Is Geo Breaking Out Of Its Niche?

A curious thing struck me during the recent hype surrounding Pokemon Go. I was discussing with a friend at my current place of work, the Geovation Hub about the intersection of GIS and society, and how Pokemon Go might help bring geo and GIS more into the public eye. My gut reaction was “I doubt that”. Why you may ponder? My reasoning goes that the majority of geospatial innovations don’t really have much to do with the traditional GIS sector. As such they don’t really expose those companies or their technologies. Examining geo products which have infiltrated or reformed our day to day lives in recent years: Google Maps, Uber, Zoopla, CityMapper, Tinder, Deliveroo, Laundrapp and now Pokemon Go they are more closely related to commercial monetization efforts and run-of-the-mill software development teams than the geospatial consortium.

Indeed under the hood the Pokemon Go story is slightly more complex in that in their case Niantic (the company behind the game) was devised by the team behind Keyhole which was later bought out by Google and rebranded as Google Earth. With this glaring exception identified, what I am trying to exhibit here is that the fundamentally the ‘geospatial revolution’ that we hear so much about from the geospatial sector has been predominantly driven by groups of individuals who have limited connections to the traditional geospatial sector itself. For example, whilst having dinner with Chris Sheldrick from What3Words a couple of years ago he described how he used to work in booking and producing live music events before he founded his company, which at the time was a surprise.

You just have to look at a host of location based startups like Deliveroo, Laundrapp, Zoopla and Tinder, almost all of which almost certainly must be collecting and leveraging geo data of some capacity, and you’ll see a very slim percentage are hiring any GIS analysts or even developers. The idea doesn’t really feature on their radar. It doesn’t really have to most the time, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. They cross those bridges when they come to them and they tend to create their own solutions rather than delve into the sometimes abstruse landscape of geospatial software. Even Uber which has an appreciation for the GIS profession sees many of it’s geo problems as a standard engineering task, see for example it’s geofencing efforts which is all custom written in Go (and an interesting take from an ex Bing Maps engineer. In the paraphrased words of an old colleague perhaps: “you don’t need GIS, you need to solve a problem”.

Clearly although distinctly related, GIS and commercial geo have tended to exist within two very different worlds. With that being said I’d like to argue that perhaps that distinction is showing signs of ebbing. I see both the dichotomy but also the blurring of those worlds occurring with the geospatial startups we work alongside at the Geovation Hub. I think it wouldn’t be an unfair statement to say the vast majority of the teams we work with don’t have a background in GIS, but they do have an appreciation for its use cases and solutions. There is an understanding of how it can help solve their business problems. For example Fatmap and Terrabotics and LandInsight are all currently looking for developers (ideally) with some level of GIS in their skillsets.

Putting the emphasis back on the industry side of things, you might ask the question if traditional GIS has all these fancy toys and insights that we all love and hold dearly, why does it appear innovations in the traditional GIS space are so lacklustre? Why hasn’t it systematically been at the heart of changing every day life like Niantic did with it’s AR gaming application? Upon thinking about it, the conclusion that I’ve come to is perhaps it has done. The catch is it’s, on a whole, not overly fantastic at flaunting itself in the same capacities that consumer facing tech companies tend to be (think Twitter, Instagram, Google etc). That is not to say it doesn’t do cool things (I’d like to think it does), I believe it’s more a testament to the spaces it operates in. GIS doesn’t tend to disrupt industries like food delivery, dating or finding the perfect bar, but it has incrementally shifted behaviours and approaches in sectors like asset management and transport planning. Indeed, GIS is an endeavour that consistently sweeps under the radar of modernities tech news radar.

As of recent, I think there are certainly movements that are gradually bridging the gap between traditional geospatial arena startups and innovation. Some examples include Esri which has it’s Startup Program for accelerating startups wanting to integrate GIS functionality into their products. At the Geovation Hub in London we are working to help startups with geospatial data. We can also see companies like Carto and MapBox that are filling their own niches and doing a great job of pulling in non-traditional cliente like Data Journalists and startup-y types. On top of all this all the biggest players (Esri, Here, Google, MapBox, Carto etc) are offering great APIs that developers can pull right into their apps.

There is an ever blurring exchange between the the worlds of industry and academic GIS and the tech and startup worlds. This is in contrast to an understanding of the more squared off set of ‘commercial geo’ and ‘industrial GIS’. With the continued growth of location based apps and ever increasing hype around drones, autonomous vehicles, big data, VR/AR and IoT, I think the edges of the two will continue to dissipate. It’s a movement away from a geospatial dichotomy to a geospatial continuum. Having said all this, I think in order for geo to truly flourish it must not be kept as an esoteric members club. It must be allowed to cross-pollinate with a whole raft of different ideas and fields, in weird, wonderful and unexpected ways.