Geospatial searching makes its mark as business tool

June 7, 2010
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“Location, location, location” has been a key phrase in the real estate industry for many years. A new technology is making the catchphrase relevant for many industries: geospatial searching.

Geospatial searching is defined as the combination of spatial software and analytical methods with terrestrial or geographic datasets. The term is often used in conjunction with geographic information systems, or GIS, and geomatics.

Geomatics is defined as the integration, acquisition, modeling, analysis and management of spatially referenced data, i.e., data identified according to their locations. It uses sensors to acquire spatial and other data, which are then transformed into usable information systems. Basically, the process matches data with relevant map information. An example from the MetaCarta website (metacarta.com) explains how this works:

“A third-party company scanned original paper documents and used OCR on the results to create searchable electronic text. These scanned documents were then georeferenced using MetaCarta to crawl and tag documents to specific locations. This technology uses natural language processing algorithms to identify and extract geographic names from text and associate the names with actual map locations. The location extraction is tuned for oil, gas, mining, and energy features, allowing users to search for documents based on relevant details such as countries, cities, towns, basins, wells, fields, concessions, permits and other named company assets. Schlumberger Information Solutions was engaged to deliver its MetaCarta geographic text search solution. This unique search technology automates the process of crawling and indexing documents at a rate of 10-100 documents per second, and then, without human intervention, makes the content ‘location-aware’ by geotagging predefined types of data onto a map-based search engin
e. This case can be found at www.slb.com/resources/case_studies/software/im/metacarta_australasia_rio_tinto.aspx).”

Essentially, Schlumberger digitalized the companies’ paper data and then catalogued it according to its location. Prior to this georeferencing, a firm had to use old surveys, seismic data and other information when working in a particular place and looking for any prior data about that location. For example, if individuals were looking for oil 100 miles south of some location, they would ask their office for any information about the location. The people in the office would then scour their file cabinets for information.

Obviously, producing anything of value to the people in the field in a short time was not a regular occurrence, with the process also being costly to the firm. Now the company has all its data readily available for easy access through the internet. Their people in the field can just bring up a map and then examine all the company’s information around that location. This is a vast improvement in operational efficiency.

Another important aspect of geospatial searching is the ubiquitous availability of global positioning satellite information. Since coordinates are now available to 1mm per year accuracy, all mapping information is currently completely accurate. With the ability to digitalize the GPS data, it is now possible to combine accurate mapping data with other data. So the combination of the Internet, rapid digitalization of old documents, and GPS has now made location knowledge available to all firms.

What is interesting about this topic and important for firms in Michigan is the potential for future growth. It was listed by the commerce department along with nanotechnology and biotechnology as one of three industries with the greatest potential. The U.S. Department of Labor classifies it as a high-growth-potential industry. Municipalities in Michigan are readily using it for land use planning, infrastructure management, property assessment and equalization. Geospatial searching is also extremely important for homeland security. With Canada as a neighbor, the importance of geospatial resources for Michigan is another argument for supporting its growth in Michigan. Finally, individual firms are starting to see the benefits of incorporating geospatial searching with their firms’ resources.  

Another aspect of geospatial searching is the shortage of workers in this area. As Michigan retools its population, there is a need for skilled people in the field. The skills possessed by our residents could easily be retrained by our educational system into the needed photogrammetry, remote sensing and GIS workers. The U.S. geology survey site, liaisons.usgs.gov/geospatial/Michigan/, provides the government resources available for those interested in pursuing geospatial searching.

Kurt Fanning, Ph.D., is associate professor of accounting in the Seidman College of Business, at Grand Valley State University.

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