Sunday
Nov152009

Reports of the Death of GIS are Greatly Exagerated

There have been some interesting blog posts recently predicting the death of GIS.  Don Meltz had a post on his blog the other day where he reflected some recent postings by Bill Dolans and others stating that because the availability of spatial data us becoming ubiquitous that there will no longer be a need for those that specialize in GIS for its own sake.  Don draws the analogy of computer technology  being applied to word processing as justification for his argument.

I must respectfully disagree.

I would draw a different analogy.  The advent of spreadsheets in no way diminished the need for accountants.  Certainly financial data is more available then ever before.  Companies like Bloomberg have made a whole business out of trading on the professional analytics created and managed by accountants.  There are dozens of different accounting packages like QuickBooks on the market today, and yet the accounting profession is alive and well.  There are accountants that specialize in venture capital structures, others that specialize in capital planning for real estate investment trusts.  If there is a significant business market in the world, there is a branch of accountants that has evolved an expertise to apply the principles of financial analysis and the Generally Accepted Accounting Principals to this area of business.

A similar pattern can be observed in the application of specialized geospatial education and training to a variety of problems from hydrology to transportation to the distribution of electric power.  In many different areas, GIS professionals apply high-order geospatial concepts of spatial reference, topology, and geostatistical analysis to support businesses, governments, and non-profits.  Proponents of the certification of geospatial professionals cite the requirement for education and training in these concepts along with practical experience in the use of geospatial technology as they make their case for establishing a true profession in this field.

Some of the comments on Don's blog suggested that because geospatial analysis is used in widely diverse fields that this somehow diminishes GIS as a particular area of study.  I would argue that just the opposite is true.  It is specifically because geospatial concepts, analysis, and technology can be effectively used to support a very wide variety of the world's problems that makes it such a compelling area of study in its own right.  Certainly no one has suggested that the value of an MBA is somehow diminished because people who possess an MBA pursue a wide variety of interests.

From where I sit, the future for GIS professionals has never been brighter.  As geospatial data becomes more available and the systems that can leverage that data become more pervasive, there will be a growing demand for trained professionals who understand the power of geospatial analysis and can bring that power to bear to help solve some of the world's most critical problems.  If you truly want to make a difference in the world, and you would like to have a wide variety of choices of how and where to invest your energy then a Masters in GIS is a great place to start.
Thursday
Sep242009

"Neo"-Geographers -- On the Shoulders of Giants

There has been a lot of chatter on the web lately about the supposed distinction between "Neo" and "Paleo" Geographers.  From where I sit, it seems to be a tempest in a teapot stirred up by a few trash talking web jocks who recently discovered how to do a mashup with someone else's base map.

I don't claim to have enough experience or expertise to call myself a Geographer.  I do know a few Geographers, and I have huge respect for their education and their cartography craft.  To my mind, a Geographer is one who truly understands why the choice of spatial reference is important and doesn't accept that Web Mercator is the best projection for everything just because it is cheap and easy.  A Geographer understands how to ply the subtle craft of cartography to tell a compelling story with a map and doesn't use Yahoo Maps for their base map just because it is convenient.  A Geographer understands how, when, by whom, and for what purpose the data he uses was created so that he can judge whether or not it can appropriately be used in a new context.

The magic of the Internet is that there are a host of new publishing tools available to make the cartographer's art interactive.  Geographers have a whole new medium to work with to tell their stories.  And some of my favorite Geographers have been plying their trade in this new medium very skillfully for many years thank you very much.  In our part of the world, my favorite web cartographers have been Bill Duffy and Tom Lynch from Northern Geomantics.  Both are very skillful cartographers and designers and Tom in particular is a top notch programmer as well.  Tom and Bill are both excellent Geographers and examples of how the best in business can quickly adapt to a new medium.  Northern Geomantics was pumping out kick-butt web-mapping sites long before it became hip to be a chest-pumping "Neo" geographer.

"Neo"?  Please.  "Paleo"? Come on.

How about a little respect for the Geographer giants on whose shoulders we stand?
Monday
Sep212009

3D Building Models for Energy Management

I have had a number of interesting conversations in the past week or so that have focused me more than ever on the issue of managing our buildings' energy use through the use of Facilities GIS.  I had the opportunity last week to sit down with George Callas who is the Director of Sustainability at the New Forest Institute in Brooks, Maine.  At the New Forest Institute, they are training home energy auditors and have undertaken the ambitious task of weatherizing all of the homes in the town of Brooks.  George's main concern was trying to model the outside of a building with just enough detail to provide the foundation of an energy assessment.   He needed to be able to model enough information about the building shell to create a baseline energy budget from which he could calculate the return on investment in energy savings from various home improvement projects.  Unfortunately, the only software tools on the market today that are capable of this kind of analysis are expensive and beyond the technical grasp of most home energy auditors.

Temperature profile in a recently measured office building Temperature profile in a recently measured office building

I have also been talking recently with my friend Niels LaCour from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.  Niels is thinking about how better to measure and manage the energy consumption of the buildings on his campus.  They are fortunate to have many of their buildings outfitted with "smart building" systems from Johnson Controls.  If only he could harvest some of those smarts from his buildings into his GIS so that he could provide visualization and reporting tools to his facilities managers on campus...   The folks at MASDAR are very interested in the same basic problem.  As a community dedicated to achieving a zero carbon footprint, measuring and managing the energy profile of their buildings is a major concern.

We are starting to tackle issues related to modeling energy consumption of buildings on the BISDM technical committee as well.  Here is what I think about the problem so far:

  1. One of the key pieces to monitoring and managing energy use inside buildings is the energy metering system.  The more granular the metering the better.  The ideal situation is to tie in to a "smart building" system like Johnson Controls or Honeywell, but even at this level some of the energy constituents like fuel consumption may be difficult to measure.  On campuses like military installations or some college campuses where a large number of buildings may be fed by a central steam or chilled water plant this metering may be challenging, but the more that can be measured, the more that can be managed (to paraphrase Peter Drucker).

  2. The interface that we develop to visualize and report on energy consumption must be able to deal with the TIME dimension at multiple different scales.  It is important to understand our energy consumption patterns as they vary during the day, during the week, and across seasons.  It is also important to be able to establish a baseline energy consumption pattern so that we can measure the effectiveness of any management actions that we might undertake.


We are at a point where technology no longer is a barrier to developing  intuitive and powerful systems that both monitor our buildings energy consumption patterns across campus and allow us to proactively manage those systems to drive down our energy consumption over time.  Will we wait until oil prices rise again before we start to take advantage of these capabilities?

Rooms symbolized by temperature Rooms symbolized by temperature
Saturday
Sep122009

Partner Profile - Mark Sorensen

Mark Sorensen Mark Sorensen

Every once in a while you meet an individual that is larger than life.  They bring a level of energy, intensity, and intelligence to life that sets them apart.  They seem to change the world in ways that are beyond the ability of most of us mortals.  My friend Mark Sorensen is just such a man.

Mark is one of the world's foremost experts in Spatial Data Infrastructures (SDI).  He has helped many countries in struggling regions of the world to establish the foundations of national mapping systems in their particular part of the world.  He was in Kosovo shortly after NATO stopped the fighting there to help them rebuild their land records system.  He is doing similar work today in Iraq and Afghanistan.  His work has taken to all parts of the globe including Eastern Europe, many parts of Africa, the Middle East, and some part of the Far East as well.  I don't know of any other individual who has done more to advance the practical implementation of GIS across the globe.

Mark is trained as a landscape planner (Harvard School of Design) and his career in GIS began at ESRI.  He was one of the first employees at ESRI back when ESRI did as much project work as it did software development.  He held a number of different positions at ESRI before leaving to start the Geographic Planning Cooperative, Inc. about 15 years ago.  His work with GPC has taken him all over the world and exposed him to an amazing variety of different projects.  His professional resume runs on for pages and is a fascinating read.

Professional life is not the only place where Mark is larger than life.  (How many people do you know that have been on the television series "I Should Not Be Alive"?)  He has hiked the John Muir trail a number of times, kayaked rivers in Alaska, and trekked across mountains in Oman.  Having grown up in Southern California, he is an accomplished surfer and an incredibly competent seaman as well.  His adventures in the natural world are every bit as amazing as his adventures in the professional world.

I had the opportunity to spend about a week with Mark in Abu Dhabi in early February.  Mark and his team are helping the Emirate of Abu Dhabi to create a Spatial Data Infrastructure for the Emirate.  Mark is interested in taking the SDI concept inside the building and we were there to work with Mark to educate his customers about the advantages of bringing GIS to the built environment.  It was an amazing week and I learned a huge amount as I always do whenever I am lucky enough to spend time with him.  One of my most lasting memories of that week is of three of us sprinting through the streets of Abu Dhabi trying to keep up with Mark as we moved from one meeting to the next.  Classic Sorensen.

There are some people that always raise the level of your game when you work together.  Mark is one of those.  I always learn a huge amount each time I have the chance to work with him.  I am grateful to count him among my friends.
Tuesday
Sep012009

Your Web Map's Secret Weapon - How pre-rendered content and content delivery networks can better your program.

This is a guest post from my friend Dave Williams at AECOM.  Dave is one of the smartest GIS Systems Architects that I have ever had the pleasure to work with.  He has deployed some very fast on secure web mapping applications on the very challenging network environments of DoD.  Dave can be reached at DaveBWilliams@gmail.com.




Your Web Map's Secret Weapon


How pre-rendered content and content delivery networks can better your program.


Dave B Williams

dave.williams@aecom.com
davebwilliams@gmail.com



THE ICEBERG PRINCIPLE


I liken a GIS to an iceberg.  Most people only see and interact with 15% of what comprises the overall system.  For an iceberg, the 15% is what is visible above the waterline.  For a GIS it is what is published to the Web and in most cases this is a map.

Ensuring that your users have a positive experience when interacting with your map is tied to known aspects of your product: user interface, content, accessibility, availability, etc.  Anything missing?  Speed! Other than having the data that people are in search of, the performance of a web based map is the single most important aspect to the successful implementation and continued use of a web based map.  I base this statement on over ten years of both scientific and anecdotal observation of users interacting with web based maps.

GOOGLE: THE PARADIGM BUSTER


The release of Google Maps in February 2005 changed GIS.  Your average non-technical person now had access to extremely fast performing web based maps in a simple and easy-to-use interface.  GIS was now ubiquitous.  Everyone was using Google Maps and the expectations about how a web based map should perform had changed.  My clients now expected (and deserved) web based maps that were fast.  Google maps (on .com) now became our performance target even for encrypted and complex systems supporting military operations.  These mil networks are often very unstable and high latency.

THE PERFORMANCE OF GOOGLE ON .00001% OF THE BUDGET


I have no idea what Google spends on their mapping programs but we do know that Google is a >$100 billion dollar company with very deep pockets.   We also know some of the key reasons why Google is so fast: pre-rendered content, distributed content delivery, and network tuning.   Learning from what makes Google fast, how can a County or Federal GIS program provide services as fast as Google and within budget?

Here's How......

1.  Pre-Render your content - This cannot be overstated!  Pre-Rendered Content (PRC) means that when your users request a map at a certain zoom level and extent they are actually requesting pre-rendered or pre-processed map tiles.  Your browser receives these tiles as known URL based resources.  They ARE NOT passing a request to a spatial processing engine to query a database and build you a picture.  Pre-rendering of content is accomplishable with a variety of tools including ArcGIS Server.  ArcGIS Server also supports pre-rendering of 3D (globe) map service data.  There are also open-source and WMS based pre-rendering tiling applications.

The server-side pre-rendering of your map content is the single most important thing you can do to improve speed and availability of your web mapping system.

2.  Geographically distribute your content - It's a simple concept:  the physically closer your map tile content is to your user, the faster they will pull it down.  Distributed content delivery networks (CDNs) provide this capability.  Akamai (http://www.akamai.com) is the industry leader in this.  They have roughly 25,000 web servers distributed around the world.  As content is accessed by users, it is cached locally so that other users can now access that content faster than going back to origin (your web server).  I have implemented Akamai based solutions for a variety of clients (mainly DoD).  The performance and scalability benefits are staggering.  As an example, one client out of Atlanta, GA saw an 18x improvement in rendering speed when serving their main customers who reside in Southwest Asia.  This type of improvement is a game changer.  As another example, I support another program where all map tile content is on the Akamai networks.  You can turn off the local web server and the map tiles still make it to the user as they reside within Akamai cache.  This is the ultimate move towards uninterrupted availability.

Akamai Architecture

Graphic Credit : http://www.akamai.com/html/technology/products/dsa.html

In addition to Akamai, there are smaller industry CDNs but one of the most interesting related technologies is Amazon's S3 cloud storage service (http://aws.amazon.com/s3/).  S3 is an easier entry (lower intial cost) product compared to Akamai but it offers some of the benefits of a true Global CDN by leveraging the massive Amazon backend storage and delivery infrastructure.  I completed a small project using S3 and map tiling and the performance was exceptional and significantly improved over hosting the map tiles on a local server.

3.  Network Tuning - In addition to the distributed CDN capabilities that Akamai offers, they also support improved network routing and decision making.  As your user types in your URL or makes a map request, Akamai intercepts these requests and makes decisions about TCP/IP routing that is almost always an improvement over letting your ISP(s) handle this decision making.  This can be  illustrated by running traceroutes against Akamaized and non-Akamaized URL assets and viewing how many fewer network hops occur when Akamai is involved.  This also means that even if your content cannot be tiled and cached and that origin requests must occur, your users can see dramatic improvements in performance and availability.

How much does all this cost?  Well, many people already own ArcGIS Server so let's not count that cost.  If you don't , there are open source tools to create and exploit map tiles (Open Layers, etc.).  Amazon S3's pricing is available here - http://aws.amazon.com/s3/#pricing and with a 15cents/GB storage cost and 1cent/1k request model, it is pretty cheap.  The entry level Akamai pricing is roughly $4,500/month for less than 2TBs of monthly bandwidth use.  This price includes their TCP/IP optimization and other related services.   There is also the additional labor and workflow costs of creating tiles.  This cost is high in the beginning but slows down once in maintenance mode as only select tiles need to be updated.  I don't have hard numbers for labor costs/time per tile but I can relate that on one large on-going project I have one person who manages all of the tiling for worldwide imagery in support of high resolution mapping of over 500 airfields.  He does this on one older 2-processor Pentium box.

In summary, map tiling makes your maps faster.  Distributing your tiles via  content delivery network makes them even faster and more stable.  By leveraging the best technologies that our industry provides you can see Google-like mapping performance that does not cost much more than is already required to support basic dynamic services.

Dave.

Dave.Williams@aecom.com


DaveBWilliams@gmail.com

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