Inside Advanced Scale Challenges|Thursday, February 22, 2018
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4IR: The Transformative Power of IoT and GIS 

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Society is at an interesting inflection point as the combination of big data, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things (IoT) come together in what some are hailing as the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). The world is on the cusp of having the power to transform itself by leveraging this wealth of data and compute resources by adapting to shifting needs.

At a more granular level is the critical issue of how geographic information systems (GIS) technologies fit into this revolution - posing questions around what strengths they offer and what challenges the industry needs to overcome.

The Next Information Age

IoT impacts everyone - from professionals in the business world to consumers in their daily lives. Everything talks to everything. Alexa controls the home and orders from Amazon. Smart refrigerators tell people what to do in the morning or what to pick up at the store. Sensors tell people their garage door was left open after they travel outside a specific radius. IoT allows devices to report in, and where those devices are is an important aspect of reporting.

From a business perspective, what’s even more exciting about IoT is asset tracking, the idea that everything in motion in the world, from cars and pallets to shipping containers, has a location.

Location, Location, Location

Some of the newest technologies are blanketing the earth with internet satellites, making it easier for devices to report data from anywhere. As a result, global access to the internet from anywhere, from any device, is important.

Another key concept is the idea of location information as a type of currency. It’s not about simply knowing that something happened three months ago, it’s that by instrumenting the world with sensor networks and having constant observations, there will be currency in the location data. Witnessing trends and changes over time becomes possible, so the currency of location data suddenly becomes a big deal.

There are both traditional GIS companies and a new generation of startups working in this space. They’re focused on new navigation systems for driverless cars and trucks, on fusing location data into every device manufactured. They’re creating a new ecosystem of companies driving this next information age.

Once organizations instrument the world with sensors, it becomes possible to watch and interact with the world in real time. Real-time visibility into the supply chain, geopolitical situations, risk management, and competitive intelligence becomes possible. From a business perspective, the thinking then evolves into:

  • “If I had transparency at all times, how does that change my business operation and respond to moves by our competitors?”
  • “With location-based data, how can I react effectively to crises?”
  • “What does seeing the world do for geopolitical situations?”

This will force reaction times to get much faster. Rather than delays that drag on for months or even years, it becomes possible to react within weeks, days, possibly even hours. For instance, satellite imagery and data analysis will soon be applied to the understanding of port traffic, storm damage, urban congestion, pipeline security, forest fires and other uses so people can make important decisions more quickly and efficiently.

But of course, there are hurdles the industry needs to overcome first.

More, Faster, Better

Sensor networks exist today, but more are needed to harness more data more regularly. Hollywood has encouraged big misconceptions about satellite imagery. Nobody's staring at a particular location in real-time. There are not daily or hourly revisits over locations. The reason is only a fraction of satellites are used for imaging and sensors, and those that are tend to be expensive to use or task in real time.

The faster the industry equips the planet and space, the sooner it’ll be possible to do more interesting things and gather more valuable insights from the data. More sensor networks mean more data, which will open up entirely new avenues of invention and innovation that currently cannot be imagined. Fascinating stuff, right?

As sensor networks proliferate, another piece of the puzzle will be getting organizations to understand how accessing GIS and geospatial information can impact a business. As awareness grows, the industry will uncover caveats of businesses. For example, many businesses and decision makers, like insurance adjusters or supply chain managers, need real-time location insights to be most effective. Real-time visibility is only made possible with persistence. That is, the GIS technology needs to gather persistent imagery. Organizations need to be able to look at images on a frequent cadence in order to measure change in a business cycle, which could be multiple times per day or per week.

That’s not happening today. Some location services, like mapping programs, may not get updated more than three to five times a year, or on an annual time cycle. There are exceptions, but even then, it tends to be once a month. Being able to monitor a particular facility and request at least one image of it once a month, is actually a pretty big stretch for today's providers.

Instrumenting Tomorrow

Sensor networks are the key to unlocking this next information age, but the reality is that the industry is a long way from the proliferation of data, and thus the next information age, being possible.

Bureaucracy and institutional inertia likely bog down most companies. It’s the startups that are nimble enough to address the industry need. Their efforts will result in a development period that is measured in days and weeks, not months and years. There are computing techniques and methods, such as agile development or minimum viable products, which allow startups to incubate ideas very quickly.

The good news is the industry is heading in the right direction with many pilots and successful programs in play. While we’re still in the early stages of geospatial technology, the mainstreaming will happen. In fact, consumer geospatial technology has helped pave the way. People now don’t think twice about looking up a restaurant on Google Maps or looking at home pictures in Zillow; that’s all part of mainstreaming the technology.  As consumers come to expect the capability, it will open up people's eyes -- especially those in business.

Scott Herman is the vice president of product development with BlackSky.

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