With an intention to spread the word of geospatial experts across the world, GAH made an effort of reaching out to one of the most intelligent minds in the field of Web GIS, Mr. Matt Sheehan, a Geographer, Founder and Director of WebMap Solutions and Web GIS Specialist, currently working as a Geospatial Solutions Director at Hexagon Geospatial in the United States. He has spent more than 25 years in the field of geospatial technology, seeing the evolution and development of new techniques in GIS.
The interview was taken by Mr. Sumedh Ghatage, a Geospatial Data Scientist at Quantela Inc, Bengaluru, India.
We have got you an insight of the informative conversation he had with Mr. Matt Sheehan.
Sumedh: You have prior experience in WebGIS, how can you describe the evolution in this specific domain?
Matt: I would like to give you a little bit of history. When I moved to physical geography, I realized people have always been oblivious to the power of geography. Geography connects with all the subjects like Physics, Economics. It was very frustrating to know that Geography was never truly realized. As I moved to America in the 90s, I saw the internet for the first time. Before that, I never heard about the term GIS and thought it was something interesting to explore.
It is a special test of technology for geographers that allow people to ask questions around locations and distribute the information across a much wider audience. Back then the web was really democratizing data and information, and the world has changed since then.
Eventually, I was doing my graduation in Physical Geography from the University of Utah where I made an application of the forest service. Probably, it was the first web application in U.S. forest service and also my first time in programming a web application. I learned how to program and finished building the application in 1998 which allowed people to view amps on the web and ask very simple questions.
Web technology and web services give us the power of distributing visualizations of data, that is, spatial, maps, especially LiDar and the ability to ask a question on that data.
WebGIS is a key to distributing web services and the ability to do these things in a non-expert and non-narrow desktop way. It has totally changed GIS as a discipline, which was completely desktop-based. So, we are living in exciting times.
Sumedh: Can you throw some light on combinations of Data Science and Web-based geospatial solutions and problems involved in it?
Matt: What we have done with Web GIS is, we have moved to cloud technology from the world of just desktop applications, special skills, and data that was non-distributed to the world where it is fully distributed with the help of the web. So, talking about GIS or the geospatial world, it fundamentally includes a map, not always but the building blocks of GIS are maps and it is often interactive maps and that is what we visualize and ask questions about it. Maps like base maps could be satellite imagery and it is made up of layers to sit on top of that. So, this way, you have the representation of rivers which have lines, representation of lamp post which has points, representation of parks which are polygons. The fundamental aspects are points, polygons, and lines. And we represent these as layers on the maps, so you can actually see all the basic data. This is the visualization perspective that we have built.
Now that base data Open Street Map is back, you can get free data. On top of that, we have now got open standards for data that go with open data outages. It is an open standard where people can easily publish data in an open format. So, maps become more of a commodity. However, I believe the real power of GIS comes in with data science.
For example, let’s say I want to put up a store in Salt Lake City and want to know about the best location. I can see the satellite image or street view of the city in layers. And I can do all of these with the help of data science.
So, we are moving to a world where with web services and algorithms, we can actually push the data to the endpoints and get an answer-back. And I think, here’s where data science comes in. People don’t just want to look at a map. I mean a 2D map, for example, is a very good way to see patterns and you can even answer a lot of questions this way. But, when you want to dig deeper, like I said, to find the best location in a city for a storefront, it requires data science and algorithms to process the request.
I think fundamentally, we are in the GIS box where you visualize geospatial data. We are getting to the endpoint to visualize it better.
Sumedh: How do you see entrepreneurial opportunities in Geospatial Sector? Any pros and cons with respect to it?
Matt: My professor told me that why would you think about doing something on this new thing, the Internet. We don’t even know it’s going to take off. And you know you are learning a tool you barely know, it’s a desktop tool. So, why would you ever try and do something like that? And I thought to myself that the GIS is going to move beyond the desktop and the Internet is going to be this enormous thing that is going to change our world.
Get on with my geospatial lens on the geospatial world because now people can ask questions wherever they are. They can ask questions about what is around them. And that’s effectively what happened. So, when I started my company WebMap Solutions, which was the focus of what we did. We built mobile applications for people using a combination of proprietary technology and open source technology. And the early adopters were the people who were coming in and using it. We were very successful because we were talking about things nobody else did.
We were a sort of consulting development company. I lived through the pleasures of being a developer and I lived through the pleasures of playing an entrepreneurial owner and the challenges of an entrepreneur on an island where I worked for 10 years and finished working on it and now I don’t do that anymore. But as an entrepreneur, that was an invaluable experience for me because I understood the technology as a developer and I jumped into the world of business.
Now is a really good time to jump into entrepreneurial geospatial being an outrageous entrepreneur and we are seeing even more of it. I mean it is hard to see eye to eye. I have read some information on apps in the App store that how many of those geospatial people are asking some kind of location question.
So, I think there’s a world of opportunities to step forward and start doing things that form a perspective. It is not easy being an entrepreneur, it is very challenging. But I think if you are an entrepreneur, you know there’s a certain mindset to be one and it is a scary world.
As an entrepreneur, you need to fundamentally think of what problems can arise. I mean so to show the world what I want. One of the mistakes I made is that I sort of had this notion that if we build it, they will come in sort of a classic old fashioned way of thinking about things. Even though I was far-sighted, I think I was in a place where we were trying to build a mobile application even before they were well known. I didn’t really attack problems specifically and got more focused on particular problems in sectors that I will never forget.
What I have learned is as an entrepreneur, you need to look for questions that need answers and then build something out of it. And it was advice that came from Fred and it was a significant piece of advice I got as an entrepreneur.
I feel it is the right time to be thinking like an entrepreneur about geospatial. There’s a very good book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, which talks about some of the Lean Startup approaches. It talks about the key to sit down with customers, look over their shoulder, watch what they are doing and ask questions, build things and take them back to those customers. Would this help solve a particular problem? I believe you have got to build it. That’s the successful formula.
So, I would suggest sitting down with potential customers, finding out their problems and building things to solve those problems. But make it an interactive process. Why I think it is more challenging outside of being an entrepreneur is we kind of life in the Wild West at the moment. I think it is quite an interesting time within geospatial because first of all, we are beginning to see more widespread understanding about what it is and like you said, lots of people still don’t get it.
I think that the geospatial industry is a kind of business tool that is not beginning to creep into the business toolbox. If you look at Spotify, they have integrated geospatial technology into their solutions. So, people have now started looking at geospatial.
So, if you are a small entrepreneur trying to build a simple solution, you can mix technologies that don’t cost you lots of money. For this, you have to reinvent the wheel yourself. The main thing that you have got to do is understand the problem and then look around to see what you should build.
Sumedh: Top 3 geospatial technologies that can be game-changers in the near future?
Matt: In my point of view the first one that should be on the list is 3D Data. GIS has been fundamentally a 2D focused technology and what I think is it was built for 2D data and targeted expert. And I would say it was fair back then, as all we had was 2D data. I mean X and Y location. We had the attribute which is the information attached to a particular representation of whatever it is. This is what we were taught to people like me at the university. I graduated from university and went into the public sector to apply for a job with my wonderful geospatial skills. GIS was a desktop technology for experts. Today, we have moved to a world where the web has become an important part of our lives.
We are able to do some really amazing things over the web that we could never do before. We could never think about 3 D back then. I will use this as a highlight of explaining how the evolution of the web is an interesting space with 3D. Most people have been taught to view the world in 2D and computers. Well, I looked down on it and I saw patterns and that’s where our strengths have always been. We are now moving into a world where 3D specialists work with 3D. They work in certain sectors that see the world in 3D and it can be reasoned in what architects do. They look into specific technologies, whether it about designing a building or any other thing that you can do in 3D, like looking at a vertical in mining or just looking down at earth in 3D. You can actually see such data in 3D and architects are trying to see the world in 3D.
We as a group don’t think in 3D. It is up to the industry to build our business using cases where 3D is useful and I can give you plenty of those. But 3D is new to people. If we go back to the time where we used to see the web, 3D data is today over the web. We can bring in these massive datasets, LiDar data for example, which is huge and we can present them over the web. It is just amazing. I mean Google Earth has been a good example of web technology that is doing that. Google Earth is more of a consumer-focused platform and any enterprise use of 3D is limited.
The second I would like to put on the list is the use of drones. There is a multitude of differences that are only up in the air. And we are using drones that collect amazing amounts of data today. So, this is the volume of data from these devices that give way to so many different technologies. It is a huge opportunity for the space shuttle industry because it’s all geospatial in orbital locations.
The last one I can think of is a platform as a service. It is something that Bill Dolan and I chatted about. We spoke about our investment platform as a service and we could expand it but while we were chatting about this we thought that it’s not just a single stock you buy. I would try explaining this like this – one vendor that sells me this stuff and I just use all that stuff. It is becoming a much richer world where the platform as a service is a really good idea. So, suppose I have a particular set of problems that I need solutions for and I know that geospatial and just geoscience or geo algorithms can do this for me. I don’t want to buy everything. You know don’t give me 50 million buttons, I just want three! But in today’s world, we have to buy 50 million buttons from a vendor to use only three.
Today I think, we are moving to a world where we have a platform as a service. It is expanding quietly. For example, in an interactive map, there are so many things we get on subscription, but I don’t need a hundred things, I just need five. So, I am not going to pay for it and I believe that’s going to be a transformational technology in the geospatial industry. It will mean that we will be in a more focused and scalable sort of world where I can choose my set of the platform as a service to solve my specific problems, for which I know I don’t need all these millions of tools. I think a few platforms of service are already providing that and it is becoming more and more popular.
Sumedh: What are your views regarding the scalability, generosity of geospatial products?
Matt: If you look out of the window, you actually look indoors or outdoors. Everything in the world is geographic. All of our activities, whether it be at play or at work or some kind of a location element to them, everything you do is fundamentally geographic. And I think, geography as a discipline is very important because we connect all the pieces that happen on the earth. You know that physicists study meteorology.
We are here talking about global stuff. Geography studies the globe. You have got other disciplines that study parts of the globe. For example, imagine the oil and gas industry. They are focused on particular parts of the globe and they use very specialist tools of oil and gas to build oil rigs and plants to manage operations. But, they build these on a micro-scale. So, all this sits vertically within the geospatial plane. In this case, the isolation of a plant is in a particular place, when you talk about multiple plants, you bring in geospatial into the conversation and it is no more isolated.
Getting to your question, I think from a scalability and generosity perspective, we are moving into a world of a wider understanding of the power of the geospatial sphere and geospatial technology. But, we are in a transitional phase at the moment. So, we have lived in a world when GIS was the foundational technology and when it first appeared, Roger Tomlinson was working with it and it was after that, that several companies came on board and started building geospatial products. It has been a natural evolution of GIS.
So, when we talk about scalability and generosity, I feel we are in a phase of change where we are still locked into proprietary solutions and there’s nothing wrong with that. I mean it is work for a company in the GIS spatial sphere. We are moving forward to a place where we are mixing open source with proprietary solutions with a bigger and newer set of solutions that don’t necessarily fit under the GIS umbrella. SO, you can look at companies like Lyft, Uber, and IBM as a geospatial company that initially used analysts using desktops.
In my view, if we are going to properly scale, we need to mix technologies. If we are locked into one particular solution set, it might just be open source or proprietary solutions. That’s problematic. I believe there has to be a mix of technology for scalability and generosity.
Sumedh: Any suggestion/action steps to create awareness about geospatial technology with respect to different verticals of society.
Matt: Yeah, there have been major differences in what we have learned and what today’s young generation learns about GIS in colleges and universities. Today’s young minds are going to lead the industry tomorrow. I feel I need to talk to these students coming out of college today with their GIS degrees, not the ones like me around whom I am round the clock. I would like to address this answer to the young minds reading this.
The colleges and universities tend to teach the nuts and bolts of GIS. They teach about the technology but not the softer side of what GIS is. I believe there’s a lot to teach and they should teach. Taking a more holistic perspective of teaching GIS is important. It is important to teach people a wider set of technologies, not just a particular stack and have them ready to graduate and solve many different problems. I think more tools in the toolbox are what they need to learn. There’s an edge wrapped around the technology that they need to learn, so they can understand how the technology works. If you end up going the traditional path for a generous person to leave college and go into the public sector to work for the government, you delay and apply their skills there; they become make makers. Students coming out of college now got to have the foundational technology skills, but they also have to understand that they need to be able to express what geospatial is to an audience. I have no idea what they are talking about unless they know where the industries failed and where they have to succeed.
The technology is irrelevant, nobody cares about the technology. Everyone’s trying to get from a problem to a solution. The key that I followed when I ran my company was to translate what people were trying to do. We went in with a conversation-starting with telling us about some of your problems. And, we were admittedly targeting groups that we knew had geospatial problems but they didn’t really understand that they were geospatial problems. We tried to get it out of them that what were those problems. So, for geospatial students coming out of college should know how to talk to these people in the business world to get the problems from them. They don’t necessarily teach this key skill in the college, but the students graduating today need to have this in their mind. They need to understand that asking questions and making the customer talk about their problem is the real goal. Everything we do is to have our customers tell us about their problems and for this, you need to ask the question first. I mean I ask all the time, like ‘You mean this?’ They will eventually understand, maybe not completely about what they are expressing. The next goal is to make them understand the problem and show them the direction towards the solution. You can do it by saying a story, but how you say it is important. The key is employing geospatial technology to a specific problem to solve it.