The third wave of democratized geospatial knowledge

Sandeep K Singhal, former CEO of Bing Maps, Geospatial and Local Search Engines

OhIn the past, the production of maps was the responsibility of professional cartographers. Geospatial data analysis was available only to trained analysts using specialized tools. Over the past 25 years, we have seen a dramatic transformation in the geospatial industry as geospatial data has become democratized and widely available.

The first shift in democratization marked the transition to digital maps. Maps have become instantly available, personalized, widely available – and free. This phase reached its peak with the appearance of street-level images and 3D photographic images, giving people the opportunity to truly visualize the location.

In another shift of democratization, maps and mapping data have become components of custom applications. Anyone could access map images or data using Azure geospatial APIs or Google Maps APIs. The companies used this data to model the behavior of their customers and understand the possibilities of mining and drilling. Users were no longer geospatial analysts; instead, they were business analysts who relied on geospatial data to do the job.

Expanding the knowledge base

Today, we are witnessing the emergence of a new wave of democratization, as governments realize the value of delivering geospatial data directly to consumers. For example, after the COVID-19 pandemic, health departments around the world publish data on virus testing and vaccination rates directly to consumers on a daily basis. These raw data in turn allow for a broad analysis of disadvantaged populations, transport needs and differences, digital access needs, and health safety. This geospatial data can be introduced into a variety of tools for analyzing and contextualizing information, further expanding the knowledge base available to consumers, planners, help agencies, and legislators.

Geospatial data is now available to everyone, regardless of the extent of their geospatial knowledge. Standard data formats, such as those developed by the Open Source Geospatial Foundation, open source application programming tools and APIs, and open markup languages, have facilitated the import, export, and exchange of data. Open Web tools support map data display and live query of rich data sets. Finally, cloud-based computing and storage, as well as analytics tools, enable extensive geospatial data processing for all developers.

Enabling innovation

We have seen that the democratization of geospatial data enables and encourages innovation. Consider how many transformative companies are made available by accessible maps in the first wave of geospatial democratization. Consider how much business innovation is enabled by using large data sets supported in the second wave. Now, as raw geospatial data is published and accessed through open source tools, startups can move agilely to build solutions, experiment, and create value.

Democratization of geospatial data is good for consumers, businesses and society. Again, we have seen that data availability fosters transparency, builds trust, supports faster and better decision-making, and fosters innovation.