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What is Geospatial Technology?

Geospatial technology started with photo interp and GIS

Geospatial technology brings tools and data together to describe, map, and analyze the world around us and worlds yet to be discovered.

The term geospatial is a relatively new invention at least in the parlance of mainstream developers. Geospatial can refer to types of data or to types of technology. The word itself is a combination of geographic and spatial – indicating an alignment between geography and the general idea of spatial/locational properties. Spatial concepts (think geometry and statistics) do not necessarily represent a place on a planet until they are combined with ideas of geography in general.

Built on the history of Geographic of Information Systems (GIS)

GIS is a technical domain, usually for geographers, that allows users to make digital maps and subject them to various types of analysis. Sources of GIS data may include satellite or aerial imagery (raster data) or line map data (vector data) delineating points, lines, or regions of interest – created by surveyors, engineers, photo interpreters, etc.

While many GIS projects output maps, their primary goal is to develop observations about a project area and overlapping properties and values. For example, land-use planning typically requires a GIS process to compare/contrast all the competing values – economic, social, environmental, etc. These are thought of as layers of spatial data that overlap one another and can be combined to show different management priorities or scenarios.

Where do deer live in the winter compared to a planned highway development in a popular tourist corridoor – many values in one location often need advanced tools to build a complete picture.

Geography made digital

While GIS helps bring geography into the digital domain, geospatial technology helps bring it to life for more people. Beyond specific GIS projects, there are many more data sources, cartographic products and ways to output maps for different consumers . Collectively, these fall into the region of geospatial data and technology.

Web-based mapping really helped propel the generalized use of geographic data into the mainstream. Before Google Maps was introduced in 2005, there were only a handful of common web-based mapping tools available for the public to use. Developers started to build their own open-source platforms to share information and collect input.

This required a whole stack of technology including geographic data, web servers, spatial databases, rendering libraries, web-interaction libraries (zoom/click/pan), and the internet itself. Geographers or GIS users may only be a small part of the overall project or not involved at all.

In the end, a handful of different technologies are needed to bring digital geospatial data to life.

Broader than just spatial analytics

Building new geospatial web-mapping tools was one part of the journey. Naturally, the more people use mapping tools, the more questions they want to answer. For example, consider how popular Google Maps became due to its driving directions. This level of spatial analytics was profoundly useful for those driving in a new location. But only a small set of built-in analytics was really ever possible with this platform – or so it seemed.

Data analysts and GIS users are used to running specific types of routines on data to get an answer. For example, calculate an optimal route from A to B. Or what is the expected water course derived from this elevation model?

However, with modern geospatial technology, the user may view and interact with the data in a more real-time approach to build understanding before they ever run an analytical routine.

They may never click a “analyze” button but can use a 3D map view to get a sense of where water will flow, or look at the streets around them to compute their own driving path in their head. In this sense, geospatial tools help them leverage geographic data in a context that is intensely personal.

Collection of mapping technology

So what tools and technology are considered geospatial in nature? As noted in the “stack” of technology above, it is a wide-ranging set of technology. It can be helpful to look at the two types of end-users that typically leverage geospatial technology: software developers and data analysts.

Geospatial developers take data of interest, depending on their domain, and create applications that allow their target audience to interact with the data in a meaningful way. This may mean taking data that is not always spatial in nature – like a list of addresses or stores running sales – and turn it into a component on a map for viewing and querying.

Location-based applications using GPS tracking on a device are also used by developers to give localized awareness of nearby data or attributes the developer wants to expose.

Geospatial analysts – often work more behind-the-scenes and provide types of data analysis outputs that get used by application developers, GIS users, or even in reports or web sites for general public consumption.

Geospatial analytics for all

Analysis with geospatial data components is not limited to one domain of analyst anymore. Data scientists or business analysts may combine data from many sources – spatial or not – to provide a common operating picture of a business or project.

Therefore, libraries and processes for analyzing geospatial data have become ubiquitous or are at least a common subset of analytical routines that many have access to. Both desktop and web-based approaches to sharing data along with analytical tools continues to grow in popularity.

Locate Press sells books for learning and applying geospatial technology, written by experts in their field:

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The Need for Open Source Geo Books

Camper looking at paper map planning next day's journey

Why we started the company in the first place – to expand the global knowledge base for our favorite tools and encourage new users to join in the fun.

In 2006 I was proud to help launch the Open Source Geospatial Foundation (OSGeo). My dream was to have every geospatial user around the world know about the same tools I had grown to love and use in my daily work. At the time I was primarily using MapServer, PostGIS, and GDAL. Others were using GeoServer, GRASS GIS, QGIS, and more.

But the products struggled to grow because the community, for many of them, was just getting started and there was little to no funding available to promote them. There was oftentimes not even enough funding for proper infrastructure, so spending it on marketing was not a high priority.

So I spent five years at OSGeo driving the marketing, outreach, and fundraising side of these projects and while doing so I heard many power users, academics, trainers, and professionals complain about the lack of structured training material.

In particular, professors had trouble breaking out of the proprietary toolsets because they had easier access to training materials. I wanted to see if we could fix that.

Bridging the geospatial knowledge gap

Enter Locate Press.

There is so much great information that stays locked up in the heads of developers, power users, and project managers. My plan was to work with existing experts in the field and help them share their knowledge in a useful form. Then trainers, educators, and professionals would have their knowledge more easily at hand. We used financial incentives to help them get their title into the hands of their fanbase and beyond (50% royalties is well beyond industry standard).

And there are great writers out there who also happen to be open source geospatial advocates, but these people are hard to find because they may not be so vocal in the project communities.

Finding and inviting these writers, and connecting better with broader communities, requires a different approach than we’ve had so far.

As part of a renewed strategy, I view the next 5 years of book development in two buckets: domains and technology. Every professional, every writer, and every product user fits into one of these.

Domains: building the profession

Some geospatial experts just see themselves as geographers or teachers and may never think that their knowledge or training approach is worth sharing. Others work in areas of business like forestry or cartography and consider themselves a sort of industrial niche area that only a few people care about.

These are domain professionals and warrant their own series. It’s not always about technology, but how you apply it to solve problems — in your business or on the ground. It’s not just about making maps or analyzing data, the spectrum of knowledge that is useful to share is much wider.

For example, the more entrepreneurial-minded bunch that already lead workshops, write blog series, or run podcasts already have the kinds of knowledge that others enjoy or they would have no audience. They know how to tap into the needs of a diverse set of communities and bring interesting information to light.

We need similar vigor in our professional and volunteer activities. How can the project you are working on today get into more hands? In what ways can it help others produce a product or solution faster or better?

A domain-focused book series is needed to help bridge the gap and help coalesce communities of interest around us all.

Tech: advocating for solutions

There are still many powerful, useful projects that are going unnoticed today. So marketing in general is going to help get the word out and bring in new contributors. There is an amazing amount of value in contributors who can’t code and may not even be “pros” at using a particular software product. They can still be powerful advocates for other users to learn from.

If this is you, then your advocacy and passion can still help products that you depend on to develop further. By bringing more attention to it through a book, it helps developers know their market is strong and helps professionals know the project is a serious endeavor (because it even has a book).

The end game

Ignoring for a moment that books do eventually get out of date, our work here will be done when everyone can get the training they need from a book, in-person training, or professional outreach at a conference. When they can then pull together a custom bundle of the particular products they need and have accompanying training material at a professional level, things will be amazing.

At Locate Press we’ve focused on technology titles and will continue to do so. However, as we move more and more into the different professional areas, a secondary focus domain-related topics will eventually emerge. At the end of the day there can be some very interesting outcomes.

Imagine with me if you will:

  • a box set of all the OSGeo project books
  • re-usable workshop guide books for the top 10 most popular platforms
  • how-to guides for new professionals in all major industries
  • pre-packaged training materials to support those delivering in-person training

These are all possible given the right focus and timing. I hope you’ll consider joining us in this quest.

If you have a book idea or know someone who would be a great author for us, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Even if it turns out to be mismatch, I’d love to hear from you.

In the meantime, check out our book catalog and let us know what is missing for you.