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April 26th, 2016
What are the fundamental questions that geospatial solutions address?

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Geospatial technologies have contributed greatly to our increased understanding and management of our planet and our enterprises. Through enhanced sensing and improved spatial analysis, we’re much better equipped to answer critical questions related to geographic context.

Many of the contributions of geospatial technologies are ancient and have incrementally evolved as new technologies have come about. The critical leap from paper analog formats to digital has enabled whole new possibilities, however, freeing up data to unlock new comprehension. Integration is an absolutely key component to the power of geospatial solutions with data aligning around location as a common denominator.

This column is the first in a series that sets up the geospatial problem set. Subsequent columns will explore each of these fundamental geospatial abilities, highlight technology advancements and identify further opportunities.

Where and How Do I Get There?

Understanding exactly where we are on the planet used to be a tedious and time-consuming process. The Global Positioning System was a huge leap forward to answer the question of where we are and to add the ability to track our route against a map. Sailors were among the first to latch onto GPS as plotting a course without visible landmarks is a difficult and error-prone endeavor. Similarly, we now each rely heavily on GPS for routing, doing away with cumbersome paper formats and inevitable frustrations while driving in areas we’re unfamiliar with. Knowing where we are and how to get where we want to go from our mobile devices is taken for granted now, but it just takes a lack of wireless connectivity to remind us of how vital this ability has become.

What’s Here and There?

Compiling details about our location used to be confined to simply mapping and labeling features. We now compile a wealth of data that describes the location and we have a variety of means of discovering details about places without visiting in person. From a flat paper map, we’ve evolved the ability to add realism and three dimensions to immerse ourselves within places of interest. With aerial and satellite platforms we’ve added the ability to inform our understanding with different perspectives and with sensors that allow us to intuit things that we cannot see with our eyes. The ability to continue to add information and understanding about location knows no bounds as it’s a constant process for a constantly changing planet.

Where is Like Here?

Cataloging conditions gives us the ability to understand where we are but also allows us to find places that conform to our interests around the globe. These interests might involve the right weather, soils and sunlight for crops; the right location to put a store, factory or distribution center with access to markets and transportation routes; and the locations of enemies and bad actors along with details on how we might disrupt their operations; and more. The ability to understand conditions and find like conditions is a key ingredient to many successful operations.

What Patterns Exist?

Understanding what exists and its condition allows us to ask further questions about these correlations. If a pattern exists, what are the underlying reasons for the correlation? Geography teaches us that our world likes a pattern. A deeper dive on where patterns are and why they exist also lets us ask where there are anomalies and why they might exist. Sophisticated queries can be formed to discern patterns of if/then conditions to unlock often counterintuitive findings.

What Has Changed?

The ability to monitor and understand trends over time has improved greatly of late. The ability to collect near constant data for both a real-time understanding and a catalog of what has transpired is now within reach. Automation has given us the ability to analyze great stores of data to extract and communicate trends and change. With this insight into change, we can take a significant leap forward in our understanding of how our world works and what we might do to better manage interactions for the least amount of friction.

What Might Happen?

When we compile the detail to understand a place, its conditions, its patterns and its trends, we then compile the ability to determine what comes next. With the details on what’s occurring and what has occurred in the past, we can then match current conditions to past or probable outcomes to begin predicting what the future might hold. This whole area of predictive analytics is expanding rapidly alongside automated pattern recognition tools and ever-increasing volumes of data. This ability to look over the horizon in order to plan and react with the best possible outcomes is the Holy Grail of many geospatial operations.

These questions have been the same since the start of geospatial technology and these core capabilities have seen the technologies adopted in a very diverse set of use cases around the globe. In these times of great technology disruption, it’s important to recall and re-examine this short list of capabilities that have allowed the technology to thrive. We may still be in the early days of geospatial capabilities although we’ve come a very far way from the analog capabilities of the past. The key to continued success is rooted in just a few fundamentals.

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