The Rise of the Geo Cloud

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Introduction

With the rapid expansion of cloud computing (‘Cloud’) and the advancement of geospatial science (‘Geo’) innovation in the Geo Cloud is nearing the speed of imagination. The Cloud offers web-based services to provide the infrastructure to power applications so entrepreneurs, scientists, and thinkers can focus on the complexities of the problem they are trying to solve. Less time and money are invested in deploying servers, building secure APIs, and worrying about how to scale, which means a faster iterative process. Despite Amazon Web Services launching in March of 2006, the Cloud is the fastest way to bring a new idea or product to market.

Geo provides the methodology to address a variety of challenges in almost every industry. Studying Geography and GIS at UC Santa Barbara, I learned everything has a place and space, and things that are closer together are more alike than those further apart. With these simple but powerful concepts, we can analyze data from a spatial perspective that allows us to derive insights between the environmental, social, and economic landscape. The mission of this blog is to spread ideas and knowledge related to the Geo Cloud and its components to drive innovation and spur curiosity. We’ll briefly look at some of the things that make the Geo Cloud possible and one of the most important technologies of our time.

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The components that make the Geo Cloud possible

Geospatial science

Geospatial science is the discipline that focuses on using information technology to understand people, places, and processes on earth. From analyzing the spread of disease to mapping land degradation across the world, we can analyze a phenomenon’s spatial context to make data-driven decisions and build effective solutions to challenging problems. There have been significant developments in the technology that enables the use of spatial data and decision making across industries.

ArcGIS Online is an easy to use cloud-based mapping application that allows for the mashup of data and the creation of online maps. I’ve used this extensively in the local government sector to make spatial data more accessible and transparent. With it’s easy to use interface and affordable licensing almost anyone can jump into the world of GIS. You’ve probably heard of Mapbox which powers some of the major applications we all use today. If you enjoy AirBnB, Uber, or Snapchat, then Mapbox is there helping you find a room, catch a ride, or share your location with friends. They have created a beautiful set of base maps and an open-source API that makes developing mapping applications easy.

For more advanced users and needs, QGIS is an open-source desktop software used by major companies like Apple and Facebook. It can be used to do spatial analysis, data development, and imagery analysis. I could list hundreds of more tools and applications that are available, but one of the critical technologies developed in the 20th century was GPS. It was initially developed by the US military and only released to the public in 1996. It has underpinned the advancement of the Geo Cloud to what we see today by giving access to accurate location information to businesses and scientific organizations around the world. We’re now seeing a similar trend with cloud computing. Resources that were previously only accessible by organizations with significant financial capital and technical skill can be tapped into by almost anyone.

Cloud computing

The world continues its move to the Cloud. A recent IDC report found that almost half of IT spending will be on the Cloud. This deployment model is more cost-effective, reliable, flexible, and in some ways, more secure than traditional approaches. More focus can be put into developing an idea than building the infrastructure that enables the development of that idea, and you can tap into global data centers that are closer to your target markets.

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The global infrastructure of Amazon Web Services

Previously a fleet of servers would have to be bought, configured, and maintained along with developing the code to orchestrate and manage that fleet. Now there’s the concept of ‘infrastructure as code’ where hardware can be deployed from the browser or command line using APIs. Other advancements like serverless applications and cloud-native databases remove the server from the perspective of the developer. You get to focus on the essential elements of your business while someone else does the heavy lifting. With cloud providers providing cost-effective services by economies of scale startups can be run for little to no cost. This has removed a considerable barrier to entry for many people. Cloud computing has democratized access to the compute resources required to solve problems.

Open data

As with any information system data is the foundation of the Geo Cloud. Cities and organizations across the world have realized the value of making data publicly available. This increases transparency and jump starts the development of new applications by allowing access to information that used to be locked away. For example, the City of San Diego has made dozens of layers available on an easy to use website developed by their Performance and Analytics Department (PandA). Concerned citizens, entrepreneurs, and students can explore their ideas by tapping into a variety of data like pavement conditions and sewer pipe locations to work requests and crime locations.

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Analysis of change in vegetation after the Camp Fire with the fire boundary in purple

On a more global scale, the USGS makes imagery available from the Landsat-8 satellite that collects multi-spectral data around the world. I recently used this to analyze vegetation changes due to the Camp Fire in Paradise, CA, and its climate-related consequences. Many startups are using satellite imagery in their core offerings, and scientists use it to predict famines in Africa, detect deforestation in the Amazon, and monitor the expanding deserts in China. Census data is another critical data sets used in many industries. Every ten years, a massive project takes place that gathers a vast amount of data on a country-wide scale. Population, income level, and employment rates are collected and can be analyzed spatially to help uncover the causes of difficult problems.

Open source

The open source philosophy has been a game changer. It’s been around for some time now, but its value to our lives can’t be overlooked. The old way of doing things stifled innovation since specialized applications and code could only be accessed by those that could pay.  Some smart people figured out that by having a transparent code base, you could yield a better product while enabling alternative business models. Mapbox has an open source mapping API that brings people to their platform while monetizing other services like base maps and storage.

These days dedicated people and volunteers build software that anyone can use (and contribute to) so that an idea can get off the ground quickly. Instead of building everything from scratch, the effort of other’s can be leveraged and help you get further than otherwise possible. Open Layers, Leaflet, Chart.js, and GDAL are just a few of the tools available for free. Lastly, one can’t talk about open philosophy in the Geo Cloud without mentioning OpenStreetMap. This was one of the original open data projects and preceded Google Maps and is comparable in terms of data quality. Thousands of organizations use OSM as a critical input into their operations. With over 2 million users making updates around the world, Open Street Map is up-to-date and accurate. I am committed to contributing my time and money to open source projects that I use daily. There are many ways to contribute to the open source community, and I encourage you to find an opportunity to do so!

Community

As we have all experienced the internet has its pros and cons, but when it comes to spreading information, it excels. Many websites and blogs enable people to share their discoveries and knowledge with the rest of us. Something that would have taken hours to figure out can be looked up and tested. Of course, you don’t want to rely on Google to solve your problems, but it keeps you from getting bogged down trying to solve a frustrating technical issue. This enables people like me to move quickly, learn alternative approaches to problems, and save some serious ‘banging my head on the wall’ time.

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Quora, GIS Stack Exchange, and Stack Overflow are all community driven spaces

Millions of people take time out of their day to share what they’ve discovered or help answer questions that other people have. Quora, GIS Stack Exchange, and Stack Overflow are just a few examples. A shout out to all the people who do this kind of work as it’s helping move society forward as a whole. If you figure something out, share it with the world as you never know what critical role your piece of the puzzle can play in helping someone achieve a breakthrough. For every project or idea highlighted in this blog, I’ll be sure to include some sources that helped me find the way.

Why it matters

Over the next few decades we can expect a lot more from the Geo Cloud-and we’ll need it. From the challenges of rapid urbanization and climate change to fighting disease outbreaks, the Geo Cloud will help us understand and solve these problems. Bringing together all the components we looked at, we can create solutions that will benefit the world, and they won’t come from only those with money and power. With financial barriers reduced, places of sharing established, and a spatial methodology to apply millions of people can turn their ideas into real-world solutions. We can expect the Geo Cloud to play an essential role in the technological landscape for decades to come. Right now, the fastest startup to reach $1 billion in valuation has a map at its core to help you find an electric scooter that makes your day a bit easier (or fun). The Geo Cloud era is here, and it will help us navigate the future and have some fun along the way.

Ken enjoys working with technology that joins digital information to a place and space. He currently works as a Geo Cloud Consultant and is the founder of The Geo Cloud.
More posts by Ken Burger.
The Rise of the Geo Cloud
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