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 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:

  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.

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.

Mapbox Traffic in Cityzenith Smart World

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.

BIM Database Long Tail

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.

Aqua Tower, Chicago, IL inside Cityzenith Smart World

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.

The Launch of Cityzenith

As I mentioned in my last post, Cityzenith launched last week in Chicago. Thanks to everyone who turned out to see us move out of beta and into a full blown data platform for BIM and GIS. We were lucky enough to have many special guests speaking including State of Illinois CIO Hardik Bhatt, City of Chicago Chief Data Officer Tom Schenk, John Kizior of AECOM, Tom Coleman of WSP-USA, and Gordon Feller of Meeting of the Minds. Michael Jansen, our CEO, lead the discussion and talked about the road to where we are today and how we’re going to change how things are done.

A warm thanks to attendees from Arup, HOK, HKS, CannonDesign, Foursquare, Perkins+Will, SOM, AECOM , Gensler, DeWalt, CallisonRTKL, WSP USA, BuiltWorlds, the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Illinois Institute of Technology, Argonne National Laboratory and many more who attended. The hard work has begun for us and we’re looking forward to helping companies connect with each other around the world.

If you’d like to give Cityzenith a spin free of change, sign up now. Let us know if you’d like to see a demo first. There is so much more to come, stay tuned!

The Command Line Revisited

I’ve talked repeatedly about GIS command line tools being powerful. During the launch last week of Cityzenith, I was describing our Asq query tool to the audience and described it as the command line of Cityzenith.

Presenting Cityzenith Smart World to the world…

Asq is simple, a query tool to search through our indexed data stores in Elastic. But is also much more, a way to manipulate what you see in your view. Using the GUI to add and work with files and layers is of course how must people will work with the product but being able to stack together commands to perform the same action is where the power is. Much like Automator on Mac OS X or similar scripting tools, the idea is to batch functions together in building blocks.

Back in the 90s I used AutoCAD for much of my data creation because it made it simple to model the built environment. Before the madness of AutoCAD 13, the DOS based approach of having a command line at the bottom of the window made its use so much better than having to navigate toolbars and menus. Windows 95 and Mac OS destroyed the command line tools to the point we have things like Ribbon Interfaces and stackable toolbars. Its so much at this point that I try and do most of my GIS processes in the command line using Python or Javascript.

I don’t want users of Cityzenith to feel constrained by buttons, dialogs and options. Start typing and autocomplete takes care of your next decision. In showing our development team how you perform a Definition Query on ArcGIS Desktop, they were speachless at how many right clicks, OKs and other UI madness one must complete before getting something as simple as [PARK_NAME] = “Grant”. I want to type:

SHOW -> FILE -> PARK -> WHERE -> PARK_NAME -> IS -> “Grant”

That’s not even including all the spatial query functions we can do.

We just launched so this is the beginning of command line City Information Modeling (CIM). Cityzenith can help manage the built environment but taking control of all the aggregated data is critical. Hence Asq being the command line of Cityzenith.

If you’re interested in signing up, we’ve got a page to do that.

HWJF 04: Steve Pousty and “Hey Dingus”

Yet another weekly edition of HWJF is out. Steve Pousty joins me to talk about JS.geo, big data in the cloud, esports, OpenShift, Alexa and Wolfram Alpha with GIS, serverless, fly fishing and traveling.

New this week are podcast chapters. If you have a modern podcast client, you’ll be able to skip between topics.

You can subscribe either on the show homepage or in iTunes or Google Play.

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