Focus on Data

When you think geospatial you think data, right? You imagine GIS professionals working their butts off making normalized datasets that have wonderful metadata. Nah, that’s just some slide at the Esri UC where “best practices” become the focus of a week away from the family in the Gaslamp. For some reason, GIS has become more about the how we do something and less about the why we do something. I guess that all that “hipster” and “technologist” thinking that goes into these “best practices” loses the focus on why we do what we do, the data.

At Cityzenith the first question a customer asks me is what data do we have available. See that’s because they aren’t GIS technologists, they’re just working folk who have to solve a problem. That problem requires the same problem that an accountant requires, accurate data. The last question these people care about is “Should I script this with JavaScript, Python or Ruby?”. They’re just looking for data that they can combine with their proprietary company data to make whatever decisions they need to make.

Finding Data is Hard

So much of what we do in our space is wasted on the tools to manage the data anymore. Sure in the 90s we needed to create these tools, or improve them so they could rely on enough to get our work done. But the analysis libraries are basically a commodity at this point. I can probably find 100 different ways to perform a spatial selection on GitHub to choose from. Personally, I can’t even recall opening ArcGIS or QGIS to solve a problem. There just isn’t a need to do so anymore. These tools have become so prevalent that we don’t need to fight battles over which one to use anymore.

Your TIGER WMS is available

Thanks to Google and OpenStreetMap, base maps are now commoditized to the point that we rarely pay for them. That part we can be sure that we’ve got the best data. (Disclosure, Cityzenith users Mapbox for our base mapping) But everything else is still lacking. I won’t pick on any vendor of data but generally, it works the same way, you either subscribe to a WMS/WFS feed (or worse, some wacky ArcGIS Online subscription) and if you’re “lucky”, a downloaded zip file of shapefiles. Neither lends itself to how data is managed or used in today’s companies.

Back to our customers, they expect a platform that can visualize data and one that is easy to use. But I know the first question they ask before signing up for our platform is, “What data do you have?”. They want to know more about our IoT data, data from our other partners (traffic, weather, demographics, etc.) and how they can combine it with their own data. They will ask about our tech stack from time to time, or how we create 3D worlds in the browser but that is so rare. It’s:

  1. What do you have?
  2. Where do you have it?

There are so many choices people have on how they can perform analysis on data. Pick and choose, it’s all personal preference. But access to the most up-to-date, normalized, indexed and available data for their area of interest. That’s why our focus has been partnering with data providers who have these datasets people need and present them to our users in formats and ways that are useful to them. Nobody wants a shapefile. Get over it. They want data feeds that they can bring into their workflows that have no GIS software in them whatsoever.

As I sit and watch the news from the Esri UC it is a stark reminder that the future of data isn’t in the hands of niche geospatial tools, it’s in the hands of everyone. That’s what we’re doing at Cityzenith.

Open Data Has Changed Everything

At Cityzenith we provide open data to all our customers for their decision making. Cities make it so easy to get this data and use it. But there is so much here than open city data. Our partners from General Electric to Mapbox all use open data one way or another to help us all get our jobs done.

Today though we don’t use TIGER data anymore, at least directly. We use OpenStreetMap data which is more complete and accurate than TIGER ever was. We use Mapbox for our basemaps (aerial, street, traffic, etc) and they’re all built with OSM data. But what is so very different than what GDT and others is companies like Mapbox help build OSM in return for using the data. That means when Cityzenith uses building heights in San Francisco for modeling that we can take advantage of the community and fill in the blanks where needed.

Mapbox Traffic in Cityzenith

That’s the big difference between then and now. You can have literally the same look and feel as Mapbox without having to pay a dime if you want. That’s the big game changer, open access to open data means that we’re all working on the same basemap and making improvements to that map. We can get all emotional with words like democratization but it has changed how we work with data. Power is no longer controlled by large companies (the reason why GDT was purchased by TeleAtlas which was acquired by TomTom). But we never have to worry about that because the map is controlled by everyone.

As we move to AR and VR mapping, we’ve got the data in place to make all we need for these virtual environments. That’s why we see such innovation in our space, the freedom to create without fear of not having access to the same data as everyone else.