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GeoWorld: What Can the Web Do for “Geo” and Vice Versa?

Issue Date: October – 2007, Posted On: 11/1/2007

Tech Time
By Peter Batty
Peter Batty is vice president and chief technology officer, Intergraph; e-mail:
I recently was at the GeoWeb conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, where Ron Lake of Galdos Systems observed that the conference’s previous focus had primarily been on what the Web could do for "geo," but now there’s increasing discussion on what "geo" can do for the Web.

What Has the Web Done?

The Web has had an enormous impact on the geospatial industry. The first significant Web-mapping site, MapQuest, which launched in 1996, was highly successful. It launched an important service and raised computer-mapping awareness, but it didn’t have the same wide-reaching impact on the overall geospatial industry that’s been seen from Web developments in the last few years.

Web technologies were adopted by geospatial software companies to make their data accessible to a wider range of users via a browser, without having to install specialized GIS software. XML and related technologies have been heavily leveraged by the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) in its work on interoperability standards.

But the most important thing the Web has done for "geo" is moving it into the mainstream, in particular when Google joined the fray (with Microsoft, Yahoo! and others following). The geospatial industry had been talking about this for years, but was unable to make it happen.

Some try to characterize the newcomers as "consumer" systems. Although it’s true that this is their primary focus, they’re increasingly being leveraged in a variety of business applications in which "traditional" geospatial software would have been used. The involvement of Google and Microsoft is causing vast amounts of money to be spent on geospatial data gathering as well as harnessing a lot of ingenuity focused on new applications and means of creating data, especially using the "Web 2.0" paradigm of user-generated content.

Geospatial data have become just another data type. Previously, specialized "GIS servers" were required to serve geographic data to applications. But now any server can provide geographic data (via formats such as geoRSS and KML), and all the major database-management systems provide support for spatial data.

There’s an oft-used claim that 85 percent of data have a geospatial component. Although it’s difficult to verify this number, it seems reasonable to claim that "most" data have a spatial component. So it’s significant that we’re crossing the threshold to where geospatial data are just another data type. Users can add a spatial component into existing data where they are, rather than having to move them to special "GIS servers."

There will continue to be specialized tasks that need to be done by "GIS professionals." But some still don’t realize—or don’t want to accept—that most useful work done with geospatial data will be done by people who aren’t geospatial professionals and don’t have access to "traditional GIS" software.
To extend an analogy I’ve used before, most useful work with numerical data isn’t performed by mathematicians. This isn’t scary or a knock on mathematicians (I happen to be one), but it means that society can leverage the power of numerical information by orders of magnitude more than if only a small elite clique of "certified mathematical professionals" were allowed to work with numbers. Substitute "geospatial" in this statement to apply it to our industry.

What Can "Geo" Do?

Much of Google’s and Microsoft’s interest in geospatial is in being able to perform local searches. The next move, which has already started, is transferring geographic search capabilities from specialized sites (e.g., Google Maps, Local Live, etc.) into the mainstream search sites.
In addition, Google and Microsoft have talked about offering a new "geo" browsing paradigm, which could be another way to navigate around the Web. For example, Google recently added maps to Google Book Search: as users roam around a map, they see icons referencing books that mention locations on the map. This could easily be extended to other information.

Also, Bill Gates has talked about Virtual Earth providing a new paradigm for online shopping, enabling visitors to walk around London and go into virtual stores. Second Life now is widely used for online meetings of various types as well as online museums, exhibitions, etc., enabling people to use a "virtual world" to interact with other people and exchange information.

The GeoWeb is maturing at a rapid rate, and we will increasingly see "geo" becoming interwoven with the Web and other information technology areas during the next few years.