Joel Campbell, President of ERDAS

Harnessing the Information of our Changing Earth (and Industry)

With over 20 years of experience in the geospatial industry, Campbell is a well known and highly regarded speaker, lecturer and trainer throughout the world. Prior to joining ERDAS, Campbell served in a variety of senior positions in sales, business development and product management. Previous employers include GeoEye, Definiens, EarthData and ESRI. Before joining ERDAS, Campbell was the Senior Director of Product Management for GeoEye, where he helped support the company’s expansion into new commercial markets and managed the launch of products from the GeoEye-1 Earth imaging satellite. During more than a decade with ESRI, he held chief leadership and management positions in the U.S. sales operation. Campbell joined ERDAS as the President in 2009.

Imaging Notes (IN) Over the past two decades, there have been periods when the direction of the geospatial industry was determined mostly by the availability of new technology and other times when it was mostly led by user needs. Where is that balance now?

Interviewed by Matteo Luccio
Portland, Ore.

Joel Campbell (JC) What drove the industry over the past two decades has been user needs. To digitize paper maps, we built scanners to accommodate large formats, line tracing software, digitizing tablets, etc. The technology really has matured in terms of base capability and how people generate specific geospatial derivative products. We are now seeing users who are expecting to have integrated workflows very closely aligned with their work processes — for example for updating parcel records or elevation contours from new imagery. For us, the balance is always with what our customers need. We are focused on solving their problems, and we use this to drive all of our enhancements and new product releases; not on creating the shiny new toys that we think might be neat.

IN How has the division of labor between the major players in the industry shifted over time and where is it headed now? For example, ESRI is moving aggressively into imagery and you recently said that ERDAS needs to be more compatible with vector GIS and CAD systems. Is the market space getting blurred?

JC The lines are starting to blur between traditional CAD, GIS, and imagery-related companies, driven in large part by the maturity of the data. For decades the effort was concentrated on building databases. Recently, there has been a paradigm shift: now, the focus is on measuring and managing change, which is supported by imagery and, increasingly, from new infrastructure — such as new bridges, water plants, or sewage systems designed in CAD.

If new imagery or LIDAR data is captured that shows a new building or building façade, it needs to be updated in the database. There is also a convergence of geospatial companies. Today, the work performed by our customers is so linked that we have no choice but to begin to blur the lines between traditional remote sensing, GIS and CAD. Competition is healthy for everyone, because it means we have more smart people and companies working to solve customers’ problems.

IN How has the global economic meltdown affected the various segments of the geospatial industry? In particular, is demand for imagery down, just as the volume of available imagery is growing exponentially?

JC On the pure business side, globally, regional, state, and local governments had tightened their budgets and the growth in geospatial projects began to slow. However, we are starting to see a turn-around. Governments are starting to do some of the projects that they have delayed.

The capture of new airborne imagery has suffered, due to four factors:

  • state and local governments, which are responsible for most of these acquisitions, have tightened their budgets;
  • the rise of airborne LIDAR and other supplements to existing imagery;
  • very high resolution commercial satellites — such as WorldView-2 and GeoEye-1 — have created opportunities for imagery at a lower price point; and
  • the announcement, last year, of the partnership between Microsoft and DigitalGlobe on the Clear30 program has disrupted the market, if for no other reason than it had everyone push the pause button before going forward with their acquisition programs.

IN Can you provide an example of how a client is using your product?

JC British Transport Police (BTP) is one of the many police forces working together on Olympic security planning. BTP is the national police force for Britain’s railways and provides policing service to rail operators, their staff and passengers throughout England, Wales and Scotland.

BTP needed to understand how to effectively store and manage gigabytes of aerial imagery and raster mapping, and ultimately deliver that data in a timely fashion. BTP had also already invested in Oracle Spatial and proper data management tools were required. Regarding performance, BTP needed to upgrade bandwidth to remote sites. And finally, BTP wanted a better solution, and recognized the need for support and partnership from a respected industry leader in data management.

Looking towards the 2012 Olympic Games in London, BTP is implementing ERDAS APOLLO, a product with a unified enterprise platform for managing and serving large volumes of geospatial data located and distributed across multiple organizations. ERDAS APOLLO is being implemented to store and share BTP’s gridded data stores, and to support the requirements of the spatial information infrastructure (SII) for Olympic security management. Through Open Geospatial Consortium and International Organization for Standardization (OGC/ISO) compliant web services, ERDAS APOLLO will enable rapid delivery of gigabytes of imagery by streaming data via the web and secure networks. This solution will allow BTP to securely organize and catalogue all geospatial data, imagery and maps, for efficient delivery using open-standard web services. See Figure 1.

IN To what extent and how is ERDAS moving to “the cloud”?

JC It is high on our priority list. This summer you will see cloud offerings from ERDAS. We are exploring essentially three areas:

  1. hosted systems, for customers that do not have the infrastructure required to perform certain tasks;
  2. infrastructure on demand; we accomplish geospatial tasks that are very resource-intensive but seldom performed, such as building a terrain model for a county;
  3. software as a service, allowing users to take full advantage of our services, on a monthly subscription, through the cloud.

IN Who are ERDAS’ natural allies in the industry, its main competitors?

JC Our natural allies include hardware manufacturers and data acquisition companies. We have strong ties with commercial satellite and aerial imagery providers, who are the front end of the value chain that we support. We also have some software allies — for example CAD companies, database manufacturers (such as Oracle and Microsoft), TerraGo Technologies, and Safe Software. The technology they offer is complementary to ours and fuels our technology.

Who our competitors are depends on the market space. We compete with PCI Geomatics and BAE in photogrammetry and with PCI Geomatics and ITT in image analysis. In server software, we compete with open source, PCI Geomatics, ITT, and, on occasion, with ESRI. The only company with which we have 100 percent overlap is probably PCI Geomatics; with other companies, the overlaps are small to medium.

In the server space the emergence of standards has led to a crowded market. I happen to believe that is a really good thing; we have an opportunity to work together and make each other stronger. Ten years ago, ERDAS and others helped to set up the Open Geospatial Consortium to create spatial database models and representation. Today, that area, in which there are well documented and extensive standards, is the most crowded area of the industry. It means that we are all interoperable and there is room for all of us in a single customer’s environment. More competition is better for the customer.

IN What will be some of the uses for ERDAS’ technology in the future?

JC There will be more on-demand, real-time processing of data from a variety of sources and platforms — including UAVs, tower-mounted sensors, full motion video and laser-mapping — not just for visualization but also for image analysis. This has already begun in the military space and we will see it evolve in the commercial sector, with products released in the next three to five years. We call ERDAS “the Earth to Business Company,” because we help people make informed decisions – whether it be to manage a watershed, assess the risk of an insurance policy, or decide where to locate a new coffee shop. We want to shorten the gap between asking the question and getting the answer needed for the decision.

Figure 1. ERDAS APOLLO catalogs and delivers BTP enterprise geospatial data over the web, via BTP “Map View”.

IN ERDAS has been very successful. What is it doing to give back?

JC We are owned by a large Swedish conglomerate, Hexagon, which has a very proactive charity approach. At the grass roots, we help our users do their job without fear or concern for financial payback. Two recent examples are the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, and the current oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In Haiti, within a day of the earthquake, our staff configured and put online a geospatial server. We used all of our connections — staff, colleagues, families, clients — to collect pre-earthquake and post-earthquake data, load it on the server, configure it, and make it available to anybody doing work in the rescue and recovery effort. We now have nearly 2 terabytes of freely distributable data on that server and about 170,000 users have taken advantage of it. We set it up and made it available without trying to figure out the business relationships.

Regarding the oil spill, we’ve reached out to about 400-500 of our customers to support them as they respond to the disaster. In all of our offices around the world, we also participate in a number of local efforts, including Walk for the Cure, blood drives, collections of toys for homeless shelters, and other less formalized, employee-led initiatives.

IN You have been in the geospatial industry for nearly 20 years. What attracted you to it in the first place?

JC I came from a very unorthodox root. Originally, I was in broadcast television; then I worked in local government as a political appointee where I helped to implement a GIS and I was struck by the ability it gives you to look at things visually, geographically, and to analyze relationships. I suspect the visual component appealed to me because of my broadcast television background. Also, understanding that geography is a very compelling analytical platform for building roads, bridges etc. has continued to be fascin-ating to me. It is a constantly growing and changing industry and for me, that has been very exciting.

IN You have worked for several large geospatial companies. Did your moves from one company and position to another somewhat track changes in the geospatial technology and market?

JC My moves have tracked the market more than the technology. I spent most of my 20 years in the industry in and around ESRI, helping customers build databases. Lately I have worked for image capture and image analysis software companies. As we constantly measure the Earth with remote sensing technology, the power of leveraging that data is a very compelling place to be, professionally and from a market perspective. That is how I ended up at ERDAS.

IN What is your management philosophy, in a nutshell?

JC What I bring is mostly about openness, honesty, and transparency, building on the foundations that have made ERDAS a great company for the past thirty plus years. If we continue to manage our work in a transparent, honest way, with open communication and no secrets, this ultimately benefits our organization in everything that we do.

IN What new ideas or directions do you bring to ERDAS? What do you want to accomplish in the next few years?

JC I am not sure that I would classify what I bring to ERDAS as new ideas or directions. Hopefully, I bring new focus and energy to reclaim what we’ve always had as market-leading remote sensing products. We have not talked much about it over the past few years. We continue to be a market leader in photogrammetry and image processing. We are increasingly seen as a reputable and credible geospatial server software provider.

We want to re-establish the presence of ERDAS that has been missing for the past couple of years. Over the past five years, we’ve changed our name two or three times, ultimately back to ERDAS. This has caused some loss of continuity and identity. Our leading position in remote sensing and photogrammetry did not change, but our profile has changed significantly. Now that we have the ERDAS name back and we have a solid portfolio, we want to raise our hand and say, “We’re still here!”

IN What is your approach to hiring? Are university-level remote sensing programs in the United States graduating the number and quality of people you need?

JC Our approach is to make sure that we get really bright, energetic, committed people who really want to work at ERDAS and share our vision. We hire at multiple levels. We have a very robust university recruitment program, typically hiring at the masters level. We bring students in for a semester at a time, and then many stay to take full-time positions at ERDAS.

When I started at ERDAS, I was surprised to find that we have an extremely tenured employee base: many of our staff have been with the company for more than 15 years, many for more than 20 years, and at least one person — the first employee that ERDAS hired, Jeff Dooley — has been here for more than 30 years! We don’t have a large turnover. We have a very skilled, committed, dedicated and loyal staff. We try to replicate that in our hiring and look for people who want to have a career with ERDAS, out of both the industry and university programs. The university remote sensing programs in the country are doing a fabulous job. However, we are having increasing difficulty in finding people who have studied photogrammetry. Those programs are not growing in the United States as much as we and the industry could support. We are working with universities to make sure that those programs do not go away for good.

IN Do you have some talent, skill, or activity not related to geospatial technology that might surprise our readers?

JC Those who know me would agree that I am an open book. In terms of hobbies, I enjoy photography, sailing and golf. Since I also love to travel, I take pictures that capture the human element as well as the physical geo-graphy of the places I visit. At ERDAS, we have a number of folks who share this passion, and I’ve encouraged our employees to capture their worlds as well. We’ve started printing and framing some of the most compelling photographs throughout our Atlanta office, so we can all enjoy these pictures and celebrate the beauty and diversity of the Earth.

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