The geospatial data collection space has barely begun.
We have been developing technologies, honing our skills, learning how
to apply digital technologies to applications and only just unlocking
the door to working with spatial information in a collaborative
fashion. There is still much work to be done around the issue of
‘thinking spatially’ and building capacity around the world.
The last few decades have been marked by extremely
talented and hard working people in the geospatial industry developing
geotechnologies, understanding applications and beginning to integrate
tools and data together. We have been infants in terms of geospatial
data collection, learning as we go and largely guided by our interests,
research and needs, which have surprised us at times since they have
evolved too, through the collection of spatial data and its analysis.
Those of us who have been working with geospatial tools
and data often take for granted that others around the world do not sit
by their computers daily and look at the latest satellite imagery of
their village or city. Many of the most pressing issues internationally
are basic, and geospatial data and tools could help a lot of people to
acquire basic things like clean water, improved roads between
locations, better understanding of agriculture issues in the crops they
grow and planning for health related issues and dealing with them – and
While we have by necessity been focused on the
technology, so that we have the necessary geotools and some
understanding of the data we collect, the geospatial data collection
innovation in the future will become more oriented toward applying the
tools, extracting meaningful data and linking the geospatial tools and
data to change policies and create a difference.
Most important to this goal will be idea of measuring progress, and
geospatial data collection tools, techniques and methodologies will
need to be developed that can tell us, in identifiable ways, if we are
making progress. We sometimes talk about throwing technology at
problems and there is a sense that that alone will result in huge
changes and benefits – not so.
Geospatial data collection in the future, I think, will
be highly linked to applications in measurable ways that create new
data through analysis and support the notion of guiding us to fill in
the blanks where more data is needed. As resolutions increase, demands
for improved results are going to grow. We ought to be able to model
phenomenon more closely and we also need to develop a capacity in our
younger generation to understand what all this spatial data means, why
it is useful and how it can play a central role in solving tomorrow’s
Earlier in this space we asked the question, “Are geotechnologies adequately addressing the need for better management of our planet? We also asked, “What do sustainable communities and planning have to do with CAD, GPS and GIS?”
These are probing questions which I think we need to be asking
ourselves with all the geotechnologies we have at our disposal these
I suppose that what I am getting at is the idea that what we want to
do in the future with geospatial tools, the impact we wish to make, the
problems we wish to solve and the needs we have before each of us, will
guide us toward overcoming them and solving them in intelligent ways –
I also want to touch on economics. It is important to recognise that
we can develop new ways for solving these issues that are economically
sustainable, that support us as we pursue them. For example, there is a
large and growing market for environmental monitoring technologies and
understanding the processes that are associated with them. There is a
large and growing market in health related technologies that include
spatial technologies in their monitoring and management. There is a
large and growing market that demands better city design, better
buildings and more efficient use of energy – across space and through
time. Finally, and more recently, there is a very pressing need for
geospatial technologies (and data innovation) to meet the challenge of
agricultural production against a rapidly expanding population in the
face of changing climate.
The innovation in geospatial data collection is going to be
significantly oriented around solving problems using geotools and
spatial knowledge in new ways that can be quantified and provide
feedback loops to help us understand what it is we are doing and
whether or not it is a step forward, backward or sideways.
I am extremely positive for our industry as we move from infant to amateur stage in knowing our world.
The tools to collect position and capture reality are still a
specialized pursuit, where generally the more you pay the greater
accuracy you achieve. Field work is an essential aspect of geospatial
practice, with the drive to collect better data more quickly in order
to spend more time adding intelligence to that data.
The data collection part of the geospatial technology industry is
diverse, from survey-grade positioning, to GPS handhelds specifically
designed for mapping, to laser range finding, LiDAR, and remote sensing
from air and space. All tools in the data collection space are quite
mature at this point, and there’s a growing need and interest for both
real-time collection and full access to enterprise data in real time.
Overcoming the obstacles of terrain continue to be a challenge in
our data collection ability. Barriers such as swamps, steep terrain and
other physically challenging environments have yet to be bypassed by a
technological solution where great accuracy is needed. Remotely sensed
information still needs the stamp of truth from in-person visits to
achieve engineering-grade accuracy. This means that surveyors must slog
into hard to reach places, suffering inhospitable terrain to take
time-consuming and labor-intensive measurements.
There’s great opportunity to close the gap between the need to visit
a site for information and the ability to sense the details of a site
from afar. Sensors are generally effective for broad-scale data
collection, but there are some solutions on the way that can break
through tree canopy to accurately reveal the ground below. Until then,
there are a great many individuals and organizations that will be
wishing for a better solution to measuring difficult terrain.
Our interest in knowing the intricacies of Earth system processes
require measurements and analysis beyond simply our own ability to
sense a place. Standing in a field doesn’t give you a true accounting
of natural systems that are constantly evolving in that space. Without
sensors to test the soil, models to understand hydrology and a constant
monitor of the impacts of weather and seasonal changes, you’ll gain no
insight into the dynamic nature of Earth processes.
Inroads have been made to give us a better toehold of understanding,
but the full picture awaits more technological breakthroughs. Sensors
that can detect and catalog earth processes are needed. Systems that
combine inputs from multiple sensors for a more complete picture are
Context in the Field
There has always been an interest to take as much data as possible
into the field. The context of collected data makes the process of
collecting new data so much more efficient and accurate. With the
measurements and observations of those that walked the spot before, a
field worker can fill in the gaps rather than starting over.
The form factor of devices such as laptops, tablets and handhelds
have made good progress toward being faster, smaller and cheaper over
the last decade. Yet there hasn’t been much development of late on
tools that get beyond the standard stylus or keyboard interface or
incorporate heads-up displays. The nature of fieldwork requires a more
integrated answer to data collection that allow for hands free and less
cumbersome inputs. There’s much that can be done to add better
capabilities for devices that add context in the field.
Harnessing the Mobile Swarm
With the ubiquity of cell phone devices with GPS chips inside,
there’s a growing promise for data collected by the masses. While the
accuracy provided by the current GPS chips is by no means good enough
for mapping, there’s definitely great promise for creative solutions
that tap into the collection capability of the mobile swarm.
Humans are perhaps the best sensors we could imagine, yet they’re
not going to remain fixed in place to log a great deal of data.
Unlocking the value of point data from an undisciplined horde of mobile
users will provide great context to our digital worlds. It will take
some creative applications and as yet unlocked incentives to gain
critical mass with this data.
Data collection tools have a long way to go before solving all of
our needs. There’s still great room for innovation in all areas of the
geospatial data collection space, particularly in areas that go well