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Canadian Business: The Web Gets Real

Andrew Wahl
From the July 17-August 13, 2006 issue of Canadian Business magazine.

By providing quick access to an immense wealth of information, the World Wide Web changed the world. It's now possible to find nearly anything via the Internet (and no shortage of things you never wanted to know about). Still, significant territory, as it were, remains uncharted.

For instance, there isn't much data about the physical world itself. Yes, there are map sites, but they are cumbersome, lack fine detail and are limited in their usefulness. (Good luck using the web to locate detailed information about gas mains or hydro lines on your property.) Similar challenges exist for businesses accessing valuable geographic data — information such as the locations of oil wells, shipping buoys and communication towers.

Companies either need to be able to access this information, or they generate it, and need to share it. Yet at present, sharing such information online is difficult. The data exist, but it's not accessible. It's in isolated pockets, controlled by many different organizations, sometimes in databases, sometimes on paper. Getting access to it is slow and costly, and if the data changes–new gas lines are laid, for example — it's not immediately updated with all interested parties. Even information that has been digitized, on a computer database or disc, is hard to integrate with other geographic data.

The problem is not new, but the world now has the web, which, at its most basic level, dynamically links all kinds of information. The challenge now is to make those web linkages apply to the vast stores of geographic data around the world.

The solution, it turns out, starts with a Canadian, 57-year-old Vancouverite Ron Lake. His fledgling company, Galdos Systems Inc., first developed the Geographic Markup Language (GML) in 1998. This web-based language has since been adopted as the basis for describing geographic features by the Open Geospatial Consortium, a global voluntary organization that is working on building an international consensus around standards for encoding and exchanging geographic data. With 315 active members, including high-tech and aerospace companies, national government agencies and non-governmental organizations, the group aims to "geo-enable" the web: "To make complex spatial information and services accessible with all kinds of applications," says Lake.

It's an esoteric goal, to put it mildly. But GML has big implications for how geo-spatial information is accessed and shared, publicly and otherwise. GML is already being used to specify data in global aeronautics, shipping, mining, geoscience research, climatology — even NATO is converting all its data from 26 member countries. "It's gratifying," says Lake. "I no longer know of all the places it's being used." As with any consensus-building exercise, though, it takes a long time. "The Internet is being laid down like layers of rock, and the interfaces between those layers have to be very stable. What we're trying to do is build another layer."

Lake's company stands to benefit handsomely from its newfound role. With just 23 employees (and nine open positions), Galdos sells software and consulting services to companies and organizations looking to migrate data to GML. To help stake out its turf in web-based geographic data, Galdos organized a five-day conference, beginning July 24 in Vancouver. Microsoft and Google are sponsors.

Many in geo-web circles are closely watching Google. As a company that aspires to organize the world's information, it could play an important role, pushing geographic data into the hands of the general public. It's already captured a lot of popular attention with Google Earth. This free, downloadable program uses the web to pull in a patchwork of satellite images of the world, grafted onto a virtual globe, then overlaid with web-linked information, some of it created and maintained by users.

Google Earth was not built on GML (although parts of its language are copied from earlier versions). But Google, like Microsoft, is now considering how it might migrate to GML — and thus have access to a new and growing supply of geographic data. "The convergence of things like the Google [Earth] browser and GML could take this thing another big step further," says Lake. Even without Google, though, Lake's and Galdos' efforts mean new territory is quickly being charted on the web — braiding the virtual world ever closer together with the real one.

Read the article on their website: Canadian Business.

Download the PDF file: The Web Gets Real