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April 5, 2015
Industry Insights: Gaining True ROI on Geospatial Technology Investments

By George Demmy, chief technology officer, TerraGo Technologies (www.terragotech.com), Sterling, Va.

Geospatial technology professionals built an industry on understanding the importance of data in a geographic context and facilitating decision-making by gathering and analyzing such data. The industry continues to grow because these professionals communicate results in ways that take some of the mystery out of the process, allowing managers to understand geospatial information and the insights it generates; offer feedback; and use such information creatively and with confidence to predict, react to and even instigate change.

Considering ROI

Now geospatial professionals have realized there’s a new responsibility associated with their role: measuring the value of geospatial information. Today these professionals are judged on the contribution that geographic information system (GIS), remote sensing and related geospatial technologies contribute to the bottom line, justifying such technologies by the same means as any other expenditure: return on investment (ROI).

Managers demand a way to justify increasingly capable—and costly—geospatial operations. Fortunately, there are a variety of ways to show significant ROI. For example, a study in Kings County, Wash., showed that GIS investments over an 18-year period generated a net return of $776 million by a conservative estimate and potentially up to $5 billion using more aggressive estimates. The means by which these returns are realized are myriad and diverse, ranging from hard metrics like time saved on trouble tickets to softer metrics like reducing per-capita costs of the GIS by extending its reach to a wider audience. The latter metric is subtle and often undervalued and underconsidered.

Extending Geospatial Technology’s Reach

Perhaps the most familiar means by which geospatial technology is extended is by distilling data, analysis and insight into a map, which is shared on paper, in a report or on the Web. Of course, this is a narrow slice of a geospatial professional’s purview, but it’s illustrative, and “map” here is shorthand for what might be an “intelligence product” in one space or a “market demographic analysis” in another.

As dissemination technologies evolve and improve, the demands upon them are increasing steadily. Two aspects are receiving particular attention.

The first is a demand for the data underpinning the map and its associated decision-making. Decision-makers rely on the analysis of those who work for them, but managers and other staff members are increasingly looking directly at the data for insights as well. Other consumers of the work want to pull the data out for other purposes—perhaps for reasons never anticipated by the map maker.

The second is a demand to reach a wider audience than just those within the confines of a particular department. Geospatial professionals participate in multi-disciplinary teams with members with little or no experience with GIS, remote sensing and other geospatial technologies, yet these nongeospatial professionals desire GIS-like access and interaction with the analysis and data. The democratization of geospatial technology has emerged from movements on the fringes of the profession to an all-encompassing revolution that’s touching all aspects of the profession and the industries and people it serves.

Seeing Is Believing

Although the term “map” is used as shorthand for deliverable items from a GIS department in general, presenting data and analysis results is much more than the traditional production of maps, charts, graphs and reports and then asking for questions. Presentations have to interactively engage the recipients, generate dialog and invite investigation and exploration.

Today geospatial technology companies enable analysts and professionals to share their work with the largest audience possible, using self-contained, interactive geospatial applications made with the push of a button and delivered on the Web, to mobile devices or to desktop environments.

The OpenGeoPDF approach allows users to access, search and extract GeoPDF maps with embedded feature attributes as an OGC GeoPackage, using any PDF-compatible software.

The OpenGeoPDF approach allows users to access, search and extract GeoPDF maps with embedded feature attributes as an OGC GeoPackage, using any PDF-compatible software.

That’s why, for example, TerraGo developed GeoPDF products to turn maps into interactive applications and why the company went further by initiating the OpenGeoPDF technology initiative, offering geospatial data interchange along with interactive applications to any PDF-capable software. The key concept of OpenGeoPDF is to mash-up the latest, most appropriate geospatial and information technology standards, practices and capabilities to extend the reach of geospatial technology to the widest possible audience.

One of the first deliverables of that initiative is the incorporation of the Open Geospatial Consortium’s GeoPackage standard to store feature attributes in a GeoPDF map. GeoPackage provides a means to store multiple vector feature classes and raster tile caches in a single file. GeoPackage is gaining traction in a variety of applications, including mobile mapping, but TerraGo is using it to provide GIS applications and capabilities that integrate seamlessly into a variety of common document workflows,
potentially making everyone in an organization a customer and beneficiary of a GIS department's work. Combining GeoPackage with PDF’s file-attachment mechanism, the data stored in GeoPackage can be extracted and used for other applications and workflows.

As Simple as Possible

Another aspect of reaching the widest possible audience is presenting
results with the appropriate degree of complexity and sophistication. There’s a palpable need for nongeospatial professionals to be able to measure, display coordinates, interrogate feature attributes and markup maps with georeferenced annotations that can be pulled into a GIS to quantitatively share observations with the person driving the GIS. The requirements to extend geospatial capabilities without a formal GIS aren’t isolated to any particular market. Fundamentally, collaboration is about sharing work.

How do you do that as a geospatial professional? For many, it’s still about producing a map. What if, instead, with the same click of the same mouse, you create an interactive application that invites exploration and conversation? The potential audience increases by an order of magnitude or more.

Rather than suggesting dialog, the map becomes the kernel of dialog, demanding expression of opinion and, perhaps, consensus. Whether an
organization is military, governmental or commercial, extending geospatial technology into every aspect of the enterprise and facilitating collaboration is why people buy, use and advocate for geospatial products.

Organizations often make staggering investments in geospatial information, and there are few indications the magnitude will decrease. Distilling those investments into something concrete and useful is fruitful territory for realizing ROI, but that distillation remains a challenge. However, it’s essential for geospatial professionals to meet this challenge to realize the ROI their tools and techniques suggest are possible.

SIDEBAR

How Do You Measure a Life?

The Army Geospatial Center (AGC) and TerraGo Technologies recently joined forces in a geospatial investment that returns one of the more inestimable values on investment.

U.S. Special Operations Command operators deploy to dozens of countries around the world in any given week, advising, training and seeking solutions to problems before they boil into conflict. These operators keep the United States and its allies in a place the military calls “the left side of bang.”

The specialized intelligence required for such operations pertain to areas often lightly explored, and that intelligence has to be arrived at quickly. The AGC supplements the resources available to these operators by delivering mapbooks that can serve as a backdrop for collaboration and situational awareness. Also, in a pinch, the mapbooks can be converted to tactical products by adding images from quickly dispatched unmanned aircraft systems and Earth imaging satellites.

Maps and information deployed rapidly to mobile devices are the backbone of applications that are staples with first responders and others who use them in times of crisis to find and treat victims or assess damage. First responders increasingly rely upon the geospatial industry, which has created tools to simplify the use of data and applications in quickly changing situations. Although the return on this investment can be measured in hard metrics, such as numbers of events addressed per time, softer metrics, while not as objectively captured, are also realized.

—George Demmy, TerraGo Technologies

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