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Geospatial’s Digital Transformation in 2020…And What it Means For 2021

Joe Francica 

Senior Director of Geospatial Strategy

16 December 2020

Geospatial’s Digital Transformation in 2020…And What it Means For 2021

Digital Transformation seems to be an overused buzzword, especially during the current COVID-19 pandemic. News stories are rampant with facts about how “going digital” has accelerated technological changes as companies and organizations depend on remote connectivity to employees and customers. A new McKinsey Global Survey of executives found that “companies have accelerated the digitization of their customer and supply-chain interactions and of their internal operations by three to four years. And the share of digital or digitally enabled products in their portfolios has accelerated by a shocking seven years.” Industries such as retailers and restaurants have been strained. Some, once thriving, businesses are now shuttered and bankrupt, while others that had a “digital” strategy in place or implemented one quickly seemed to have survived and thrived.

In parallel, those of us in the geospatial technology and location-based data business believe our sector of the IT domain offers tools for resilience during this time. Geospatial tech provides businesses and governments the products and services that offer a “digital first” strategy by supplying, then analyzing real-time data and developing predictive location analytics. Geospatial is at the forefront of contact tracing as well as helping retailers target “an audience of one” through more dynamic, device data. Footfall data, for example, has given us insights into pedestrian behavior such as where and when the movement of people has slowed near major shopping destinations and how that has impacted the economy of urban centers particularly. We know, too, from these data the flight to suburbs from cities, and how traffic data reflects this scattering of the population. Real estate prices are soaring in rural areas; energy prices are falling as people drive less, and we can visualize these changes more easily with maps. And then there was the U.S. election of 2020 where the use of maps by the media told the story of a fractured electorate. Currently, our technology is being tested as we rush to support the logistical challenges of distributing the COVID-19 vaccine to a global populace.

Is Geospatial Software Transforming?

But has our industry itself been transformed during the pandemic? Are we experiencing changes because we too have had to adapt? Is geospatial technology aligning to accommodate the needs of a changing marketplace? Are certain sectors thriving; others failing because particular products were not marketable? Are our customers rethinking how they purchase and use geospatial technology? We sometimes get too caught up in our own “geocentric” thinking but we are part of the digital economy that must change as well.

Changing economic situations of buyers would suggest a continued move toward SaaS solutions, which certainly has been ongoing for several years. SaaS solutions allow elasticity that adapt to rapidly changing reality. This is seen most conspicuously as a result of the pandemic that saw 10 years of ecommerce growth in just three months, according to a report published by Shopify.

But now, what can be expected from geospatial’s own transformation? Will it spell the impending death of desktop mapping software? On-premise solutions, while locking companies into license agreements, might still be required for security. As the work from home economy continues, so too is an increase in cyber-terrorism and the need for more robust firewalls. Geospatial technology and data will not be immune to ransomware attacks. Here, cloud and cloud-native GIS deployments also become more attractive, benefiting from higher level security certifications. This provides more agility within an enterprise IT environment. The caution, however, is that large-scale GIS-in-cloud environments also bring complexity and challenges, leading companies to explore new models such as GIS cloud-managed services.

Are Geospatial Data Services Transforming?

What can be expected in the market for geospatial data? Data is a perishable commodity. I expect to see variations of DaaS accelerate. It must become easier to buy data on a more flexible licensing arrangement, and we’re seeing that as the rise of available data APIs like weather and POIs, for example, continues. As mentioned earlier, more dynamic, near real-time sensor information is attractive because it carries currency. In addition, with the abundance of Earth observation (EO) data and more satellites launching, re-visit times and options for selected spatial resolution provide yet another data set with currency and accuracy. But the EO industry is evolving to be more than just a warehouse for imagery and is progressing to promote their analytical services, and selling extracted, more useable feature-rich layers and other classified data rather than simply raw pixels.

Noteworthy too is the rush toward the expansion of 5G services, which is primed to introduce a new pipeline of data. I’ve noted previously that 5G is intrinsically and inevitably tied to geospatial technology. 5G is not merely a vehicle for transmitting data albeit with some speed but represents a transformative ecosystem for connectivity. Geospatial is at the edge and represents that analytical frontline for comprehending the volume of location-based sensor data.

Finally, and noteworthy, is that we sometimes forget about issues related to privacy and location. See the recent announcement that Apple and Google are asking developers to remove X-Mode’s tracking software from apps or they will be prevented from accessing their phone’s operation system. These data, while extremely useful, as mentioned above, will now apparently carry some guardrails that may prevent some of the analyses that mobile data provides.

So, geospatial, too, is in the midst of its own digital transformation. But, not to worry. Geospatial is regarded as a “general purpose” technology. Think of it like word processing software. That is, try doing your job without it. Likewise, it is sometimes a hidden, essential technology deeply embedded in enterprise systems where businesses simply don’t exist without geoprocessing applications.

Just imagine Uber without maps.

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