2014 GeoCom: The Changing Face of Geo 11-13 November, 2014 – PART ONE

DAY ONE

So having arrived at my hotel the night before at 1:30am, I was suited up and ready for the day at GeoCom 2014. This is the culmination of five events across the country, addressing “The Big 5” issues of the moment in Geospatial.

First off, the location was fantastic. Held at Chesford Grange Hotel, Kenilworth for the first time, it had a serene and relaxed atmosphere, notwithstanding the fact that it had excellent spa facilities. The latter did not concern me as I was in fact, staying in the Best Western 5 minutes up the road instead (not jealous at all).

I had arrived rather early so I checked out the sponsors and exhibitors, spotting the usual ones – OS, ESRI, Leica, Autodesk etc. before swiftly grabbing a strong cup of coffee and pastry. While I perused the programme for the day, I had been caught unaware by a friendly AGI bloke called David welcoming me to the event. In the midst of excited confusion and reaching out to shake his hand, I had dribbled tea down my tie (which at this point was covered in pastry crumbs).

Strong start Kelvin, strong start.

PLENARY SESSION 09:00-10:00

First up was the conference chair, Rollo Home, who welcomed us in a sprightly and excited fashion. Aided by an array of geo-props such as his copy of the Chorley Report and the subsequent government response, Rollo reflected on the achievements of the AGI in its 25th Anniversary.

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“2014 is not about looking backwards, it’s about looking forward and the challenges we will face.” – Rollo Home

After Rollo’s introduction, the atmosphere in the room lifted from bleary-eyed to engaged and ready to go. Tag out, next up was AGI Chair, Anne Kemp.

Anne’s approach was the antithesis of Rollo’s in that she asked the group to look forward. What will the world be like in 2020? What about 2050? She asked us to do a little “thinking” homework for next morning. As we wake up, take 5 minutes to imagine what the world would be like in 2050 and take some notes. I wonder how many will do it?

Our first speaker of the session was homeboy, Professor Tim Broyd, Chair in Built Environment Foresight, UCL. He began by warning us that the global population is rising, natural disasters are getting more and more lethal and that we are growing older….and fatter. Thanks Tim! But the implications for all this is that we need to provide so much more for these people in terms of infrastructure. He mentions the ambitious UK Gov BIM targets for 2017 but whether it is feasible or not, he stresses GI will help us tackle these challenges we face in the future. Tim was excited by the prospect of a whole new array of technologies available to us from drones to wearable tech to AR&VR and how they, in turn, may help us as an industry as the tech matures.

The second speaker for the plenary session was Richard Waite, Managing Director of ESRI UK. Now this was one of the more interesting/controversial talks of the whole conference. I was incredibly excited to hear what the MD of one of, if not the, leading geospatial platforms had to say about the outlook of our industry. To begin, Richard draws similarities between the GI industry and colonist and pioneers of Americas. At first, there were high rates of disease and death, and likewise in the GI industry, there were low levels of computing and IT skills. Richard continues the metaphor with:

“We (the GIS industry) have yet to cross the Mississippi.” – Richard Waite

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What he means is that we must tackle the barriers to the take up of GI and create a critical mass such that GI becomes the norm. There is a “load of opportunity” that awaits us but the UK geo market is showing only slow and low levels of growth (2-3% growth betwen 2009 to 2012). He then asks the crowd: “Are we on the cusp? Are we poised to make the final push to success? Are we on the verge of a breakthrough?”

“No.” – Richard Waite

The room is eerily silent. Richard continues to lay down the hard truth of government cuts and declining AGI membership. He argues that even though we are out of recession, the “right” sectors that we are good at are not growing. There is a quest for “ubiquitous” GI but at the moment, GIS “remains the preserve of the specialists”.

So what can we do? Richard suggests we embrace new technologies. Even though the take up may be painful, there are lots of opportunities. There is a new wave of entrants into the GI market and giants such as ESRI must be involved so not to be caught out. The analogy drawn here is not to be the Tesco or Sainsbury’s to their Aldi and Lidl. Richard stresses that we must also focus on educating young people on GIS. It is key to preserve the education of Geography as that is what distinct us. We must be able to communicate our competitive advantage of the power of “geography”.

Richard continues that there must be new sources of added value with a greater integration with mainstream IT yet preserve our strengths in geo. We need to brand GI better, sell its advantage and benefits to the highest level and be able to communicate not in our lingo, but to speak in “business benefits”.

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“Let’s embrace change and move forward together.” – Richard Waite

 A damning outlook on our industry, but one that is a real eye-opener to the challenges that we face as an industry. I agree completely with Richard that there is a lot of hard graft ahead and we must break away from our specialist bubble to ensure our industry survives.

SESSION ONE 12:00-12:30 – The Role and Implication of UN-GGIM, Dr Vanessa Lawerence CB, CO-Chair, UN-GGIM

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Another GI celeb ticked on my list, Vanessa Lawerence. Vanessa gave us a talk on her new role in the UN and what the UN-GGIM is. For those who don’t know, the funky acronym stands for United Nations Initiative on Global Geospatial Information Management. Vanessa tells us about the structure of the UN and where the group fits in as well as her vision of making geospatial a functional group by 2016. I particularly enjoyed two quotes from Vanessa’s talk:

“For nation building – geospatial management is crucial” – Vanessa Lawerence

In addition, this one shows the importance of GI:

“In Namibia, a country in which water is a scare resource….spatial data is only below water in significance” – Minister Alpheus, Minister of Lands and Resettlement, Namibia

SESSION TWO 12:30-13:00 – Towards On-Demand Data in GIS Clients: Experiences with Generating GIS Datasets from General Purpose Data Feeds – Ian Sheppard, WSP

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It is always great to meet up with your old boss and see what he is up to. Ian tells us about scraping NHS Choices Syndication Feeds in order to build a national health location dataset. I still remember when he walked me through the complex FME model way back in 2013. Good times!

SESSION THREE & FOUR 14:15-15:15 – Debate: Over the edge: can open standards keep up? AGI Standards Committee

After a delicious buffet lunch consisting of salad and BBQ chicken wings I dropped into a debate on open standards. I remember the discussions got heated but I struggled to keep up with the high calibre conversation, warm room and large lunch…

SESSION FIVE 15:45-16:15 The Evolution of Location – James Brayshaw, Pitney Bowes

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After several cups of strong black coffee, I was back on it. James’ talk focused on “location intelligence”, something that is “more than just GIS”. Although I agreed with many of his points about presenting GIS better and selling its benefits to consumers better I feel that the onus on disassociating itself with GIS was unnecessary. In my mind, LI is just a rebranded GIS. The same stuff under the hood, but with new terms for things we do already and a name that isn’t just a confusing acronym. When asked at the end if LI is just GIS rebranded or just done well, he strongly and vehemently disagreed. For me, he lost a little credibility when he stepped into a GIS faux-pas of throwing the term “Big Data” nonchalantly (and incorrectly). Still, a fantastic debate and I’ll be keen to learn a little more about what LI really is. It seems it is all about communicating geo better, in a language that the business-types understand by talking in terms of benefits rather than technical spec.

A fellow delegate on my table summed up his feelings about LI vs. GIS quite nicely:

“GIS is not sexy – that’s why we call it LI” – anon.

SESSION SIX 16:15-16:45 Future Proofing Cities – Elspeth Finch, Atkins

Elspeth wasn’t there to give the presentation so a colleague stepped in. It is always hard to stand in for a presentation you didn’t write so I only wrote down a couple of points in my notes – “Cities need to act now” & “We need to act and think in an integrated way”.

PLENARY SESSION 16:45 – 17:30 Neil Ackroyd, Ordnance Survey

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I was excited for Neil’s talk as like Richard, he is the head of one of the leading businesses in our industry. Following what felt like a telling off from a teacher with Richard, I was keen to see what Neil had to say.

Neil’s talk was titled “The New Disruptors: Evolution or Revolution”. He begins by outling Ordnance Survey’s history and its evolution to keep up with the industry. Talks of automated 3D data production and roof extraction made me smile as I recognised some of the leading research OS was carrying out. Throughout the talk, the mood was wary but optimistic. Neil feels that there is a future for us GI folks, but not as how we have purposed ourselves. There is a whole new set of demands that are about to hit us and we need to embrace these new technologies as they mature and become commercialised. He recognises that OS, as a brand, lies mainly in the rose-tinted memories of “42 year old white males”.

In all, if Richard’s talk was like a teacher telling you off for not trying hard enough then Neil’s was coming home to your father who gives you a hug and tells you it’ll be alright!

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All in all, an enthralling start to the conference. Although that evening I retired back to my Best Western hotel room, dreaming of the various luxurious jacuzzis, steam rooms and spa treatments available, I sat down and thought – well most of them probably don’t have an authentic Matisse hanging by their bed!

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See you in the next post for PART TWO,

Kelvin.

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