We are at a point in time along the
geospatial maturity curve where product development and innovation has
been mastered to a high degree for many technologies. The focus for
many people has changed from tightening and adjusting the nuts and
bolts under the hood, to one of acting to solve problems and becoming
engaged in understanding others. Technological maturity and advancement
has meant freedom and empowerment. It has also propelled these spatial
tools and geodata to center stage to engage in the world’s most
pressing and complex problems.
Technology innovation and advancement has
continually changed the landscape for both non-professional and
professional users of geospatial technologies. Some people actively
pursue and enagage with technologies with the idea and purpose to
understand how they work, learning the details of the technologies and
the limitations of them. Another group of people like to learn
technologies and participate using them, but also like to understand
them in enough detail that they feel comfortable with their operations
and details. Finally, a third group of people don’t care to know how
technologies and tools work,
but they do understand that someone, usually in their team or
organisation, will need to understand them. This later group are
interested in what the technologies can be applied toward
and developing the interactions that enable these developments. No one
type of person is the same.
Manufacturers of geospatial technologies
have continually improved upon these technologies. Most people find
them easier to operate today, than previously. They will often speak
about higher interoperability, greater options in their functionality
and can often point to detailed operations that they can achieve with
the flick of a mouse button. Automated feature extraction from imagery
is an example of this. As is the operation of a GNSS receiver – both
complex conceptually, but readily acted upon through a few button
As geodata and spatial information have
expanded and grown in use and variety, many people are moving toward
the internet for transferring these data, but also the products derived
from raw data. In fact, the combining of data through JSON, for
example, is something that is revolutionizing the use of spatial
information. More information is being integrated through the internet
than at any other time, and it is getting easier and easier to do.
The considerations for choosing web
services as compared to purchasing and operating one’s own software is
a real consideration, a strategic decision. These forms of service can
change the whole way that work is accomplished in some organisations,
and the time saving can have considerable impact on an organisation.
Can you find and purchase the services you need, or is it in your interest to develop them?
Are the costs of purchasing services more attractive than operating them?
Do you have the ability to overcome complex technical issues, or do you prefer to have someone else handle them?
Is the workflow to get the answer so complex that it simply is not worth doing yourself?
Can a web service provide data and other information quicker, and better, than you can?
Do you have sustainable resources for operating your own hardware/software?
What are the impacts of upgrades and can you handle them?
What about coordinate and translation issues?
These are a few of the consideration that
we need to investigate when considering services over owning our own
technology. There may be others depending upon the nature of individual
An advantage to purchasing services from
others is that other people can discuss options and improvements for
solving problems through web resources that may not be readily
available, their experience matters.
Some people talk about upgrade cycles that
are so often that they cannot keep up to them. They sometimes choose to
let upgrades lapse, because the upgrade path is near impossible to
follow. Alternatively, many web services upgrade in the course of
regular operation, often upgrading clients through server downloads.
The concept of purchasing and owning as
compared to purchasing web services applies to almost every aspect
of geospatial applications, not solely to GIS. It can be found in
remote sensing technologies, geodetic services, GPS information,
cartography and surveying.
A simple way to considering whether or not
web services are for you is to to create a matrix that includes
operations and functions against each approach. Feel free to add to
it. Once completed, the answer will be fairly clear as to whether or
not web services for your geospatial needs is a workable solution. I’m
betting you will be surprised.
There are many considerations when
contemplating whether to cultivate in-house capabilities or to rely on
the expertise of others. A large part of this equation revolves around
how often the toolset is used, and the level of benefit that it brings
to your business. An infrequent user requiring spatial analysis and
reporting would be much more likely to rely on outside help as opposed
to users where geospatial tools are integral to everyday business. For
instance, a business interested in finding the optimal sites for their
retail outlets is more likely to source a service as opposed to an
organization that needs to use geospatial tools to manage assets across
a broad geography.
Geospatial capabilities are becoming much
more accessible for a wide range of users at an affordable per-person
cost, and the varied level of capabilities with different tools
provides many different entry points. This much larger gradient of
capabilities makes it a bit harder to decide when to make a purchase of
either software or services. An organization can now make an initial
investment and expand their use and depth of tools much more readily
over time than was possible previously.
Rudimentary geospatial query,
visualization, routing and navigation tools are being delivered by free
web-based tools these days. While this base level of functionality has
perhaps diluted some sectors of the geospatial software market, it has
also opened peoples eyes to the capabilities. This exposure has made
many people inquire about the richer capabilities of professional
tools, converting many to the more robust options that are out there.
Cultivating in-house capabilities gives an
organization complete management over data, technology infrastructure
and system outputs. There’s an added degree of freedom to tailor the
toolset to specific needs without relying on the limited understanding
of an outside entity. And there’s also a better handle on costs, with a
more consistent ongoing cost after the initial investment expense,
rather than fluctuating costs that also may limit the amount of
decision support that is received based on budget limitations.
One of the most compelling considerations
for most businesses to go the in-house route is the security of their
proprietary information and data processes. The services route means
the reliance on a third party that may hold your data outside of your
controlled corporate environment. That lack of data control is a deal
breaker for some companies.
While the benefits of in-house expertise
are overwheliming in some circles, there are also some considerable
headaches that go with this route. The maintenance of multiple software
packages, licenses, and hardware are considerable. It’s also an expense
to train personnel, and often difficult to find the level of technical
expertise that your specific problems may require.
There are a number of different service
options in the geospatial space. As noted earlier, there are
consultants that will take a look at your operations, ingest your
geospatial data and use their own systems and proprietary spatial
analysis tools to output reports and other decision support tools.
There are service organizations that will stand up customized toolsets
that get to the heart of your business needs without requiring a large
investment in software. And then there are large software vendors that
will sell both software and services to work on large and complex
geospatial enterprise integration efforts that require a considerable
amount of configuration and customization.
The complexity of geospatial tools often
means that outside help is needed, but the level of service help is
dependent on the outcomes that an organization is looking from the
tools. Many organizations have progressed along the use of geospatial
tools rather slowly, with the need for data capture for their
operations taking a great deal of time before they can realize the
benefits of in-depth geospatial analysis. Data capture and other rather
simple aspects of the tools don’t require as much expertise as does
such things as custom analysis algorithms and the integration of
geospatial capabilities within other enterprise systems.
Software As A Service
An option that straddles the desktop and
services options is software as a service (SaaS). This hosted software
capability provides tools and technical support in a software package
that is hosted on remote servers and accessed through the web. There
aren’t very many SaaS options in the geospatial space, but geospatial
capablities are likely to enter into more customized toolsets that are
tailored to specific businesses. SaaS will never replace the core
geospatial capability in all sectors, but it will provide avenues to
extend the capabilities to a broader audience.
The advantage of SaaS is that features and
functionalities are well engineered and become streamlined more quickly
based on feedback from a large number of users. Hosted services provide
a great deal of scalability for businesses that are rapidly growing,
and can drive down the per user costs. There’s also the convenience of
having others maintain and manage servers and there’s no need to rely
on internal staff for training and troubleshooting.
The downsides of SaaS are the lack of
control, and the fact that you may be locked in for some time to come.
Once you’ve put your data onto a remote server, it can be come very
difficult and time consuming to move it somewhere else.
As you can see, there are really an
overwhelming number of factors in the determination between software
versus services, with a considerable amount of gray area between the
two. The majority of geospatial practitioners take advantage of both
software and outside services, and that’s a trend that’s likely to
continue for some time to come.