Nuages: Innovations in the Clouds

A New Geo Marketplace

By Craig Bachmann and Natasha Léger

"Nuages" (Clouds) is Gypsy Jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt's famous WWII song of peace, balance, and tranquility. It may not be the perfect soundtrack to support our exploration of the "disruptive" nature of "cloud computing." However, Django's timeless music has been an inspiration for many other artists in improvising and innovating new ways of looking at the world. Like Django, the new geo marketplace may be the source of inspiration and innovation for imagery/remote sensing (I/RS) products as the imagery value chain of data storage, processing, and distribution begins to incorporate cloud computing and create new information products and services.

According to the Wiki (we are talking "cloud computing" after all): Cloud computing is Internet-based (‘cloud') development and use of computer technology (‘computing'). The cloud is a metaphor for the Internet (based on how it is depicted in computer network diagrams) and is an abstraction for the complex infrastructure it conceals. It is a style of computing where IT-related capabilities are provided "as a service," allowing users to access technology-enabled services from the Internet ("in the cloud") without knowledge of, expertise with, or control over, the technology infrastructure that supports them.

According to the IEEE Computer Society, it "is a paradigm in which information is stored permanently in servers on the Internet and cached temporarily on clients that include desktops, entertainment centers, table computers, notebooks, wall computers, handhelds, etc." Cloud computing is a general concept that incorporates software as a service (SaaS), Web 2.0 and other recent, well-known technology trends, where the common theme is reliance on the Internet for satisfying the computing needs of the users.

Cloud computing is also known as utility computing and offers companies the opportunity to save money on technology infrastructure and reallocate resources to innovation and product development. How all this will change the way satellite I/RS data are stored, processed, and distributed is open to debate. It is clear, however, that "cloud computing" has the potential to disrupt the traditional value chain and enable innovation, not only in data, but in the information and applications that build value for a growing segment of end users.

Software as Services (SaaS) has had its detractors due to fears of loss of security, lack of performance control, and unknown liabilities. With Amazon's S3 web services and Apple's Mobile Me recent outages, dependence on the "cloud" doesn't seem to be pragmatic… until, of course, the cost savings associated with data storage, hardware, software applications, data processing and distribution, and an understanding of the real risk of "cloud computing" overcomes the fears and helps to transform businesses and organizations of all sizes and types.

The New Geo Value Chain

Traditionally, I/RS data have been specified and delivered to expert users who "know" their applications. The value of the data was intrinsic to the mission of scientists, researchers, government analysts, and GIS users. Today, a growing segment of users represents less spatial data expertise, but a greater diversity of needs – and potentially a much greater set of requirements for data to become "information." Some believe that this "greater set" can be handled by integrating the "silos of information" in the "cloud" – more about that below in the discussion of the new geo marketplace.

This diversity of users has created three distinct demand markets for I/RS: the traditional market of experts and GIS users, an Internet mass market of amateurs to professionals, and an emerging business users market which is still undefined. Therefore a new set of distribution cycles is emerging: "Data" and "Information."

The Data Cycle encompasses collection, processing, exploitation, and distribution that result in an image product. This image product is not viewed as "information" by many new users, but simply a backdrop that provides context for other data points. The Information Cycle includes the data, and must also be able to answer a "business value" question—to provide not only required data, but analysis, recommendations, and "answers" in formats that may be usable beyond GIS. The image/data becomes information when it is integrated with other data sets into a workflow and decision-making process. Some call this a mashup; others call it an information product.

Imagery distribution to date has focused on the Data Cycle, and the users of the data created the Information Cycle. The Data Cycle ran either directly to the end user or through resellers, to subject matter experts/consulting services and, most recently, to mass markets (via Google and Microsoft). This is the "raw data" distribution model.

An additional challenge is that the data were fragmented by industry vertical markets—for example, the "insurance" vertical did not contain the same specifications as the "agricultural" vertical.

In order to serve the growing segment of users who want Data + Information at lower costs with easy accessibility, the question for the marketplace is how "information value" will be developed before the end user ingests the content. In other words, the new users do not wish to invest in the Total Cost of Operations (TCO) to turn data into information (cost of data + cost of software application + cost of hardware to run the software + cost of training on the application + cost of manual analysis)—and they don't have to. See Figure 1.

The New Geo Marketplace

Cloud computing and geospatial awareness create the opportunity for value-added/derivative imagery products to be developed, as well as for lower TCO for the new segment of users. These products may be as "lite" as presentation mashups or as "rich" as Hyperspectral Imaging. The ability to serve up both is a function of "outsourcing" the massive computation infrastructure in a cost-efficient, scalable environment.

Among the next-gen mapping suppliers innovating in cloud computing is WeoGeo. Imagine a place where the long tail qualities of geospatial interests, curiosity, and demand can find any geospatial product from a raw image product to a value-added image to geospatial art. WeoGeo is emulating the eBay model of frictionless transactions whereby a market of long tail users influences the value and liquidity of geospatial products.

WeoGeo was built to address two fundamental issues in growing the imagery market: 1) finding and acquiring high-volume/high-value mapping content and 2) fusing mapping content developed in industry verticals or "information silos" to create value-added geocontent. See Figure 2.

The "cloud" helps solve the problems. According to CEO Paul Bissett, "The cloud allows organizations and businesses (especially small businesses) to find and acquire volumes of large image files and to process customized mapping content."

Putting massive computational infrastructure in the hands of the next-gen mapping users and suppliers will dramatically lower the cost of developing "information." As spatial imagery, remote sensing, and GIS finally get an infrastructure of the scale needed to put imaging products and services in the hands of the non-specialist, we see growth in the entire ecosystem. Data, hardware, software, support, and information suppliers will be able to tap into the three markets and build solutions that were previously restricted to large organization initiatives.

Back to the Clouds

GIS and I/RS have always required a significantly greater computational infrastructure. Today, it appears that clouds on the horizon are not indicators of a rainy day for imaging; in fact, they may help create a much larger and diverse user base.

In many projects, "cloud cover" was a bad day for satellite imaging; however, "cloud computing" will enable a new value chain. Django Reinhardt, as jazz musicians tend to do, continued to take inspiration from the clouds innovating music that made him a legend. There appears to be a similar opportunity for satellite imaging.

Craig Bachmann and Natasha Léger are partners in ITF Advisors, LLC, an independent consulting firm with a focus on next-generation strategy and on translating the increasingly complex new media business environment's impact on business models, markets and users.

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