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February 6th, 2011
CompassData Reinforces the Importance of Ground Control

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Howard_BrantImagery is a critical foundational base map element for most GIS systems. Ensuring the accuracy of imagery requires ground control measurements to geolocate, calibrate and georeference the imagery. Traditionally this step has been done by a surveyor on a project basis, but the whole new volumes of data make this project-based approach problematic. V1 editor Matt Ball spoke with Brant Howard, founder and CEO of CompassData, about his company’s unique approach of creating a reusable product out of ground control points, and the ambition to make this concept global.

Imagery is a critical foundational base map element for most GIS systems. Ensuring the accuracy of imagery requires ground control measurements to geolocate, calibrate and georeference the imagery. Traditionally this step has been done by a surveyor on a project basis, but the whole new volumes of data make this project-based approach problematic. V1 editor Matt Ball spoke with Brant Howard, founder and CEO of CompassData, about his company’s unique approach of creating a reusable product out of ground control points, and the ambition to make this concept global.

V1: To start, I think it’s very interesting how you’ve developed a group of companies that intertwine. While our main focus is on CompassData, I think our readers would be interested to know of the full portfolio of businesses that you’ve started and how they interrelate.

Howard: In 1994, we recognized a need to take GPS, GIS and wireless technologies to the market, so we started CompassCom. The foundation of the company was distributing and selling GPS mapping products from Trimble. As we were doing that we realized there was an opportunity when we were dealing with the major commercial satellite imagery providers and companies like Vexcel on the aerial side, to connect and provide photo identified ground control on a broad geographic basis to help them enhance imagery and other geospatial products.

A couple years after that we started reselling vehicle tracking systems from Trimble and Orbital Sciences. In doing so, we then started developing our proprietary software and entered our third line of business as a mobile resource management and Automated Vehicle Location provider. These three divisions were doing well and growing, and then in 2003 we separated them into different companies — CompassTools as the distribution arm for Trimble and other GIS field tool manufacturers, CompassData as the company that collects ground control and other field data collection projects, and CompassCom Software as the mobile resource management software company that does vehicle tracking systems for public works, emergency response, and government fleets, etc.

V1: I think it’s interesting how these specialized entities came about, and how the expertise in each helps feed what you can do in the others.

Howard: There’s good synergy between the organizations at certain levels. There are CompassTools clients that want to manage their mobile workforce by usingCompassCom software to improve efficiency. There are clients that would like to outsource field data collection, and some QA/QC done on data that was collected using hardware from CompassTools. And then there is sometimes a need to create better base maps for a client’s  vehicle tracking solutions, and the CompassData business can enhance GIS to support CompassCom’s MRM solution.

V1: The origin of your ground control business was in the early days of the commercial satellite imagery business, isn’t that right?

Howard: Some of it was satellite based with SpaceImaging and DigitalGlobe. One of our first clients was Vexcel, now Microsoft, collecting data for the 3D building models that they were building for the operations management and decision sciences (OMDS) world. That was one of the first clients that we had that really wanted us to collect the data and provide control points for multiple cities around North America to enable them to build geospatial products.

V1: You’ve really built up that photo-identifiable ground control point archive. How has that grown over the years, and what do you deliver to the customer?

Howard: When we started out, GCP collection was a project-related business. The clients would search out a mapping or surveying company or they would collect it themselves to support their imagery enhancement projects. It became clear, as these company’s volume of data exploded, that it was expensive to go out and identify and manage all these sources. It was overwhelming in terms of volume, and in terms of managing the data that came in different ways. It was really much easier for them to pick a company that would take responsibility for the ground control piece.

CompassData either collects it ourselves or with partner organizations internationally that we qualify. We’re now in a position to provide large projects over large geographic areas with the data collected consistently to the  same specification. It makes it much easier to deal with just one data source for these large companies with large archives of imagery. The key to the growth of our business is our standardization, quality, reliability of our GCPs at a reasonable price and quick delivery.

We’re not really focused on one or two cities with an aerial imagery project. Our focus has been on companies that are doing regional, national or international projects with companies that need ground control to enhance their product, and they want it in the same way, accurate, and dependable all the time. In doing that, I said early on that CompassData would license the data to the clients, allowing us to build an archive of data that we could relicense to other clients without having to revisit these site over and over again.

We have to selected points that we would map or survey that had a lifespan to them that would be available for many years. We’ve picked high-contrast features and features that don’t generally move. Once we collect them, they should be able to be used for many years.

CompassData has pioneered the business of control point data is a product and not a service business. Ground control is now a product that can be bought off our website with a credit card, without tasking every project to do the same thing on the same sites over and over again. I believe this has really been a game changer for the ground control business. We’ve standardized the way that the data is collected, and made sure we deliver the accuracy and consistency our clients expect. We can do it quickly and at a reasonable price over and over again. The goal is to go once, and map, and use it many times.

V1: What’s the growth trend of your ground control point archive look like, and are there yearly goals in addition to the project-based work that you get?

Howard: We have over 17,000 points in our archive today worldwide. We can typically collect anywhere in the world within three to four weeks, and in the United States within a two-week timeframe with price that we can give a client up-front as opposed to an hourly rate or a rate that might change. When you’re building geospatial products that you’ll in turn be selling as a product, you need to know your cost basis up front. We realized that we needed to give our clients a price and a guaranteed delivery as they work to build their products.

We look to grow the business in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Europe has a lot of data already, but not in a consistent format. We’ve done a lot of work in South America with the major cities in Brazil collected. We’re looking to expand to the population centers of the world. The real frontier is outside North America, there are so many parts of the world that are in dire need of being geospatially enhanced, mapping land use, mapping resources, and it’s happening. As it does, they will need more accurate geospatial data, and resources to enhance them, and we’re hoping to be a part of that.

V1: I really like your marketing approach that labels you as “Control Freaks”. You’ve identified a process, you’ve promised a level of accuracy, and you collect to exacting precision. How did that tagline and mindset come about?

Howard: We want to be identified as the go-to organization for this kind of data that is consistent, accurate and guaranteed. We were sitting in a meeting to discuss our product approach and that term came up, and we latched onto it, because it’s what we do.

We currently have five different levels of accuracy in our specification. Our specifications align well with the range of imagery that is out there, from mid-range imagery at 5 and 10 meter, right down to the half meter or our 10 cm accuracy for the aerial business. We try to collect the best data around the globe, and we collect .2 meter by .2 meter by .5 meter (X,Y and Z). Our products are driven by the sensors, and we guarantee our deliveries to the specifications. We also have established bore site ranges accurate to 2-3cm to support aerial camera calibration.

When you look at a product versus a service, we have a guaranteed product. If the product doesn’t work for you, you get your money back. Or we go collect another point that will work for you. It’s a very important differentiation between a professional service and a warranted product and spec that you buy off the shelf. The Control Freaks tagline let’s customers know that we take the business seriously, we have a passion for it, and we want to get points set up around the world. People can use these points for all kinds of data, whether it’s imagery, vector-based mapping, concatenating many different data sets together and having points to tie them together. We want them to depend on our data to help them to make their products more accurate as well.

We just introduced a new product line of remotely sensed ground control points (RSGCPs), working with Infoterra and their TerraSARX data, we are now able to collect GCPs anywhere on the globe without putting feet on the street. We can use the SAR image chips and get 1 meter or 3 meter control points anywhere in the world, particularly for places that have been geopolitically tough to access or for logistics purposes tough to access.

Now between our terrestrial collection and our remotely-sensed series CompassData offers worldwide coverage for ground control, helping the geospatial community to produce accurate and reliable geospatial products.

V1: I know that you’ve had some back-and-forth discussions within the MAPPS organization about the distinction between products and services. I would guess that some surveyors might feel a bit threatened by what you do. Have you had to defend your product-based approach?

Howard: As a MAPPS Board Member for the past 5 years, I have been involved in the evalution of the geospatial profession with my collegues who own professional service organizations. MAPPS has been in the forefrount of defining the role products and services in our profession. Four years ago MAPPS defined the role of geospatial data products and licenced data with a matrix that defines the role of each in the profession. Our relationship with MAPPS has been key to our ability to grow our product working with licensed professional on our staff and throughout the profession. 

When we collect the data for ourselves and license it back to our clients, we’re creating a product, and that product has the specification that we define, not defined by the cient, we have a warranty on that data, and we do not want to be compared with the professional service side. It’s really about building the product set, having it available, and taking it and combining it with imagery data, vector data and building a GIS solution. Control is just one of the data products that can be combined with imagery, DEMs, vector data sets to produce a final deliverable for a client. If the project requires a licensed professional  then this professional will choose the data sources and take responsible charged for building and delivering the final project.

V1: It’s a lot about letting the market decide as well, right? I know there are different regulations in different states, and a fair level of issues with the term authoritative that stand in the way of a more off-the-shelf approach.

Howard: We don’t run into issues very often, because our projects tend to be with large commercial organizations that may not be specific to a particular region or locality. These products might end up as maps or in such platforms as Bing Maps. It doesn’t mean that others may not use our product for local authoritative data with professionals as project leads, that’s certainly where things are heading.

For commercial data sets that are used on online mapping sites or applications for automotive navigation, that’s not a requirement. The data becomes important, easy to use, and easily accessible.

V1: I really like that your standardization brings a lot of value to the data, because it is making it much more accurate, and adding use to the data that wasn’t there without the precision.

Howard: Control has typically been something that was collected by the flyer’s ground crew or outsourced surveying companies, or people that pick up a GPS receiver and go to the field. There are large databases in organization that are disparate sources, that haven’t been consistently collected in the same way. We’ve strived to make this a consistent data set that people can count on.

We’re going to be doing some things to expand the reach so that other organizations can contribute qualified data into our archive to expand it beyond our own collection to a group of qualified partners. We’re working to grow the archive more so that people doing geospatial projects have this resource for QA/QC, enhancing imagery or just helping them solve a problem. We’re looking for partners to share their data and share the revenue on the licensing of that data.

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