The GovTech 100 is an annual list compiled and published by Government Technology as a compendium of 100 companies focused on, making a difference in, and selling to state and local government agencies across the United States. We were excited to find this month that GovTech has put Cityzenith on this list.
There are a lot of spatial companies on that list which just shows how important this space is. We’re getting ready to release our Smart World Professional tools later this quarter which are built on Unity and the Mapbox Unity SDK. It’s been a crazy 6 months from being part of Dreamit to now being on the GovTech 100 and then on to Smart World Professional.
The choice of Cesium predates me, so I was not involved with the decision. That said those who made the decision have explained why they went that way. Cesium was probably not the original choice but at the time in 2014/2015 it was the best solution of a “game engine” for our product. We did look at other engines such as Unreal but the 64-bit support and the ease of use in the browser, Cesium won out. In implementing Cesium what were we able to do?
We were able to implement a cross platform 3D world in a browser. That’s not an insignificant accomplishment. Our Cesium team really did an amazing job of making Smart World feel like a regular desktop application even if it was in a browser. No extensions to load, Java or Flash to configure. In a modern browser it basically just worked (more on this though later).
While normally a pain in the rear, the fast updates and quick support for new features on the Cesium project gave us access to new features regularly. We were able to continually update our support for better graphics, performance and features almost by just loading up a new version of Cesium. Of course, in reality it is not that easy but the feature improvements were regular and powerful.
Open source is very liberating on many levels. Not having to fight a licensing battle and focus on the product is a nice change from other development libraries and SDKs. Also having direct access to the developers. If you don’t follow Patrick Cozzi yet you should. Amazing work and they listen to feedback.
glTF support is second to none. I’ll be talking about glTF soon as well and why we absolutely love it.
OK, so what didn’t work with Cesium? Why leave it?
There are really only two reasons we have left. Most of everything else we get with Unity we would either have with Cesium very soon or it’s being implemented today. But the two reasons have been killer for Smart World. I don’t think everyone runs into the same problem we have with their apps so this is more of a specific issue with what we are doing rather than a problem with Cesium.
Cross browser support. Remember when I said that we had cross platform support? Well that really only works if you use Google Chrome. Other browser support is poor at best. Microsoft Edge? Yea not going to happen. Being an enterprise app, we don’t always have the latest and greatest browsers that our customers can use. It’s not an IE8 problem but Edge and Firefox support really killed it for us. It got so bad that we had to put up a modal dialog box that basically said you couldn’t use Smart World without Google Chrome. That’s just unacceptable to us and while we tried to work on solving this the reality of support in other browsers was not coming quick enough and I’m not sure it was a problem that Cityzenith could have solved throwing money at the problem.
Performance in the browser. Chrome is many things and one of them is that it is a memory hog. Loading up cities in Chrome really would put a strain on our user’s computers. The browser is great for simpler 3D mapping but streaming gigabytes of data into a browser really tasked computers. We worked on a ton of LOD workarounds but the compromises to make the application work on a typical enterprise desktop or laptop really left a bad taste in our mouths.
Roadmap for Cityzenith
We want to provide the best 3D analytical tools and we’ll continue to do so. Combined with AWS Lambda and AWS IoT services, we’re making a huge leap in how people perform spatial analysis. Not only are we working on our own planning tools such as rooftop solar analysis, LEED-ND analysis and traffic analysis, we’re integrating RhinoGrasshopper plugin support, so anyone can use their existing workflows. As I said above, we’re moving our 3D engine to Unity. In fact we’ll be having a closed beta very soon for our customers to try it out. One of the biggest reasons we went with Unity was Mapbox’s Unity SDK. We are already a big user of Mapbox and thus moving to the SDK made a ton of sense. I’ll go more into this in another article.
We all get busy from time to time and the past year has been so busy that it feels like a blur for me. That’s a good thing though, so much good going on. At Cityzenith we’ve hired a great team to migrate our platform from cesium.js to Unity. More on this later in the post.
Now on to the news we were able to talk about last month was Cityzenith was selected for the Dreamit UrbanTech. This is startup accelerator founded in partnership with Strategic Property Partners (a joint venture by Jeff Vinik and Bill Gates). SPP is leading the $3B redevelopment of the Tampa Bay waterfront, one of the largest real estate projects in the United States and a rare opportunity to build a smart, connected city in an existing urban zone.
I’ll be in Tampa all next week meeting with many of the companies who are going to use Cityzenith to build the Tampa Bay Waterfront Project. We are excited to use the project to scale Cityzenith into a tool that can be part of the workflows for all Architecture, Engineering and Construction companies who want to integrate, BIM, GIS, CAD, IoT, web services and visualize them in a worldwide 3D tool that gives them the ability to plan for the future and the impacts of current development. Should be an amazing time.
In the coming weeks I will be diving deeply into why Cesium is actually pretty damn awesome even if we didn’t select it for Cityzenith Smart World 2.0, why we’re really liking glTF 2.0, Mapbox Unity SDK, using AWS IoT and AWS Lambda for some great serverless file conversions and what we’re diving into deeply, City Information Modeling or CIM.
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.
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.
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 uses 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:
What do you have?
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.
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.
Just thinking about how much open data has changed how we do business. I remember having to pay GTD an arm and a leg for simple data.
A blast from the past hit me as I was cleaning up books in my office. An invoice from GDT (yea I mistyped it above) for their Dynamap product in 1998. What we were getting back then was TIGER data with curation and charged a ton of money. GDT and others organized the data for you which is what you paid for vs the TIGER/Line files that we normally used.
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.
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.
In the GIS world the database part of GIS files is the power. I would wager the average GIS Analyst spends more time editing, calculating, transforming the GIS database more than they do the editing of the points/lines/polygons. The first thing I did working with GIS files is open the table to see what I have (or don’t have) for data.
One of the key aspects to BIM is the database. In the hands of an Architect, the database takes a back seat but tools such as Revit make sure that everything that is placed has detailed information about it stored in a database. It isn’t Revit though, IFC, CityGML and other formats treat the database as an important part of a BIM model. But when we share BIM models, the focus is always on the exterior of the model and not the data behind it.
One thing I’ve focused on here at Cityzenith since I joined as the CTO is pulling out the power from BIM models and expose them to users. As someone who is used to complex GIS databases I’m amazed at how much great data is locked in these BIM formats unable to be used by planners, engineers and citizens. I talked last week about adding a command line to Cityzenith so that users can get inside datasets and getting access to BIM databases is no exception.
That’s why we’re going to expose BIM databases the same way we expose SQL Server, Esri ArcGIS and other database formats. When you drag and drop BIM models into Cityzenith that have databases attached them you will be prompted to transform them with our transformation engine. BIM has always been treated as a special format that is locked up and kept only in hands of special users. That’s going to change, we are going to break out BIM from its protected silo and expose the longest of long tails in the spatial world, the BIM database.
I’ve always said Spatial isn’t Special and we can also say BIM isn’t Special.