Data without Borders:

The Future of I/RS

Craig Bachmann
Natasha Léger
ITF Advisors, LLC
Denver, Colo.

In this new column, we will be bringing a different perspective to readers on what we see as “Next-generation Mapping.” Our focus is to explore new forms of aggregated geo-data and the uses of imagery and remote sensing (I/RS) and GIS beyond traditional customer channels. We believe that I/RS is entering a next generation of mapping applications because Moore’s Law has hit the geo-data community in full force. Moore’s Law, simply stated as the doubling of computing power and halving of the price every 18 months, is forcing a change in business models and in the cost, functionality, and availability of geo-data. The evolution of new users of geo-data and I/RS is most clearly evidenced by media company Google’s new use of geo-data in its service offering Google Earth, Microsoft’s Virtual Earth, and many others.

New media is still the new buzz with over 175 million global broadband users. New media brings a fundamental shift in the way people communicate and share information that leads to an unprecedented level of collaboration-driven innovation. Pre-Internet, communication was constrained by a limited audience (think a telephone conversation between two people, not a conference call) and the ability of one party to control the information being disseminated to many people (think broadcast TV). As the movement away from the traditional constraints of communication that are involved in one-to-one and one-to-many exchanges, new media means that content shared or viewed by people is no longer controlled by a single party (think global R&D collaboration).1 New media is the many-to-many model whereby almost anyone outside the traditional production chain of a piece of content—be it a book, TV show, movie, video, or I/RS image—can “add value” to that content and create new business and distribution models. New media creates a new decentralized environment that includes data without borders.

Once solely in the hands of earth scientists, military professionals, and large corporate resource management organizations, I/RS data was considered the domain of the highly trained expert. Users were traditionally restricted by expensive workstations. Data sets required significant storage. As a result, access to data, tools, and distribution was made available only to niche professional users.

Figure 1 - The image shown on the CNN Website, taken by DigitalGlobe’s QuickBird satellite, identifies a mountainside anomaly, 15,300 feet on the northwest corner of Mt. Ararat, in eastern Turkey, that associate professor and veteran national security analyst, Porcher Taylor believes to be the remains of Noah’s Ark.

However, via the Internet, I/RS data has become ubiquitous through news sites, blogs, Google Earth, ArcWeb, and similar portals. Figure 1 illustrates the use of Digital Globe imagery in a mass media article by CNN used to support historical research in identifying the remains of Noah’s Ark. As I/RS increasingly is subsidized by new advertising revenue models and journalists, consumption by new users will increase. Recently, consumers have seen more I/RS data than ever before due to images and reports of the 2005 Asian Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the war in Iraq, pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, and terrorism. “An Inconvenient Truth,” the movie of the dangers of Global Warming featuring Al Gore, is full of I/RS experts and data. Promotions, such as the one for “An Inconvenient Truth” in Figure 2 rely on I/RS images to drive the message. Remotely sensed data in this film demonstrates the integration of once niche information in mainstream film entertainment. This has all resulted in a newfound awareness and integration of imaging and remote sensing.

Google Earth has received much attention for providing what was once prohibitively expensive satellite imagery for free (see Figure 3). Offerings of several other companies, such as ESRI’s ArcWeb, and’s clearinghouse for imagery, also expand the use of geo-data. These examples are only the beginning, assuming this new portal approach follows other industries; not only will new applications emerge, but new business models will, as well. For example, Terraserver has established relationships with most of the commercial satellite imagery providers and allows users to choose the source and date of the image. At this time, free imagery appears to be used by the general public as simply a nifty new application—“a gee-I-can-zoom-in-on-my-house” kind of thing—and as news information. However, we can expect MSN Virtual Earth to present something new due to Microsoft’s acquisition of Boulder, Colo.-based Vexcel (see feature article).

Figure 2A - poster advertising “An Inconvenient Truth,” a Paramount Classics movie release directed by Davis Guggenheim, which opened in the U.S. on May 24, 2006, features a satellite image.

As broadband adoption rates continue to rise around the world, the online world is now one in which users of every type—students, professionals, academics, researchers, techies, concerned citizens, and hobbyists—develop communities of shared interests and therefore of shared data applications. As these examples illustrate, the Internet provides a platform for “connecting many dots” for the multi-layers of I/RS, GIS, GPS, and field data. As geo-data professionals know, an inevitable demand for location-based views and analyses arises from the ability to be connected 24/7. From the beginning, I/RS depended on technological innovation to advance geo-data aggregation and integration: ERTS-1, MSS, Telsat, SPOT; then “arcs and info” overlaid on satellite photography; polygon analysis applied to remote sensing data; GPS enabling more accurate, efficient field data capture; and last month’s Russian launch of a remote sensing satellite. With each innovation, a new global set of users has emerged.

New virtual communities no longer constrained by accepted business practices now have access to I/RS as they participate in environmental and community-based projects that span drought control, conservation, climate change, natural disasters, and recreational use of nature, to name just a few. For example, scientists traditionally relied on armies of students or contractors to gather field information. Today, with a GPS, a mobile device, and an Internet connection, any concerned citizen has the ability to provide scientists with local geo-coded data that can reduce significantly field data acquisition costs. As GPS has become available in cars, on cellphones and on PDAs, it has passed from the hands of professionals to hikers, campers, hobbyists, and kids doing science projects. Everyone can participate in and use location-based services that include digital I/RS data: this is truly data without borders.

Figure 3 - Google Earth 3D screen shot shows the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.

As we at ITF provide strategy to innovation-driven industries, one of our offerings includes scenarios based on economic, political, and social assumptions that drive plausible futures. Many of these scenarios include location-based services that utilize I/RS. New wireless applications, globalization, and security all have inherent needs for I/RS in the future. New location services, from personal questions such as “Where are my kids and family?” to traffic and 911 alerts, are developed every week, but what we have found to be key new media drivers are the rapidly growing online communities and affiliation groups.

In some cases these communities without borders will collaborate and innovate on issues that extend beyond government’s presumed authority over certain pieces of information and projects. Online sharing of data of all types has begun the unforeseen demand of geo-data and will fuel the “long tail” of unique users. These new users will collaborate in ways that blur the lines of traditional private, public, and individual distribution of products.

1 Crosbie, Vin. 2002. What is New Media?, White Paper.

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. Craig Bachmann was a pioneer in the use of GIS by utilities and communications companies and has participated in many milestones along the path of geo-data aggregation. Craig Bachmann and Natasha Léger have combined their strategy and scenario planning expertise in the fields of communications, utilities, mapping, public policy, and international trade to provide their clients with a dynamic, comprehensive and innovative perspective on the risks and opportunities presented by the new media environment. Natasha Léger is also a published scenario-planning author and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Denver’s Institute for Public Policy Studies.



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