Sanjay Kumar of Geospatial Media in a recent blog highlights a problem that has been in many sectors a festering sore for years, maintaining geographic data. Sanjay was visiting the newly-built headquarters of a large company (I assume Trimble) in Denver last week. Trimble has just completed a new headquarters building using its own geospatially-enabled design and construction technology (aka eating its own dog food) ranging from surveying, laser scanning, machine control to building information modelling (BIM), which resulted not only in efficiency in construction process saving time and cost, but also offered enterprise wide information with regard to the assets and facilities of the building for maintenance and safety functions.
Sanjay contrasted this forward-looking use of geospatial data and technology with the experience of a person invited to visit the new HQ building being denied a visa by the US immigration agency because the agency's GIS is out-of-date and indicated there was no building at the address of Trimble's new HQ.
Based on his recent experience Sanjay goes on to generalize about the 'too little too late' approach with regard to harnessing and utilising the value of geospatial information and tools that characterizes too many geospatially-enabled programs. Despite having gone through the entire process of commoditization and industrialization via initiatives like Google Earth and Bing Maps, spatial enabling of industrial work-flows in the field of engineering and construction, mechanization of agriculture, management of emergency services, and critical utility in defence and national security, geospatial technology gets attention too late in enterprises and governments and often too little effort is made to create high quality frequently updated geospatial information.
As I have blogged about on numerous occasions primarily in the context of utility and communications infrastructure, geospatial data quality including currency is a huge problem in many sectors of the World economy.
At last year's ESRI User Conference, Sam Pitroda, adviser to the previous Prime Minister of India offered a vison of IT enabling a better future for India's 400 million people living below the poverty line. A key part of that vision is creating "a nationwide platform for GIS to [geo]tag every physical asset. With this, we have platform for cyber security, lots of government and public service applications."
That is an incredible vision, but if we aren't able to maintain the currency of the information including location of our infrastructure, geotagging all of our assets will simply exacerbate the existing problem of maintaining geographic data.
Data is perishable, just like meat, vegetables or fruit. The business problem is finding the equivalent of refrigeration so that geographic data maintains its value. A solution to the problem is to treat information about assets as at least as valuable as the assets themselves. For example, I remember visiting a Telefonica Sao Paulo engineering facility several years ago. All the design and construction work at TelefonicaSP is done by outside contractors. My first question is how do you ensure that as-builts are reported accurately and get into the asset database in a timely fashion ? It is very simple - contractors don't get paid until the as-builts are in the database and have been verified. Heathrow is implementing a software system right now based on a similar business process but that is aimed at automatically ensuring as-builts are reported accurately, consistently and in a timely fashion by contractors. As we move toward a new way of planning, designing, building and operating and maintaining infrastructure, this type of solution for maintaining the currency of geolocation data is going to have to become standard in the construction industry.
If we don't treat geospatial data as a valuable, but perishable commodity, as Sanjay concludes, geospatial will remain highly under-valued and under-utilized technology vis-a-vis its potential and offerings.