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Don't look back in anger
Others can look back, you should look forward
This time of year poses numerous arbitrary opportunities to look back and reflect. While reflection is incredibly powerful, you should be taking the time to look forward, not back.
The geospatial sector is in a unique position now. Yes, pontificators say such things every year and maybe the "excitements to come” posts are as cliched as the “year in review” posts. But I do want to point out a collection of trends which have been bubbling in the background which could make an impact this year. I will carve up our geospatial practice into three market areas of interest for review.
Defence & Intelligence
The consumer space has seemingly been quiet for the last couple of years. Google and Apple maps have proven to be excellent tools. Though neither is perfect, each company continues to invest in more data and incremental innovation. Each technology looks toward an augmented future. Any company that wanted to avoid the licensing or cost of Google’s Map API would move towards Mapbox’s excellent range of alternative mapping APIs. Though Mapbox was bitten harder than most by the great resignation and general worker unrest, they seem to be making inroads into the automotive sector.
So, things just seem to be bumping along in consumer mapping. With the exception of a couple of new players like Felt, where is the disruptive innovation in the consumer sector? Really we should look at the self-mutilation of SNAP’s mapping team and the resulting diaspora of augmented reality expertise. While SNAP had tremendous mapping and augmented expertise, these hadn’t collided effectively inside SNAP. This organizational misfire, combined with a tough technology market, led the leadership to let go of a large number of highly capable mapping and AR staff.
This lay-off will send augmented ripples through the consumer mapping space. For a long time, we have seen the rise of augmented reality as the next obvious step for geospatial visualization. But things hadn’t quite lined up for that robust consumer experience. I expect SNAP’s cost-cutting might be the spur our market needs to evolve.
Obviously, we can look at complementary assets like 3D headsets and LiDAR on phones as supportive technologies. But there had to be a market catalyst. SNAP’s misfire, then subsequent lay-off, might be just what the rest of us needed.
So as we think about 2023, think about consumer augmented reality.
Another weak signal in the consumer segment (but perhaps in tech in general) is the fragmentation of larger tech companies (SNAP and Mapbox come to mind immediately), catalyzing smaller innovative efforts such as Felt. Perhaps there are a few lessons here too:
Companies should ensure their staff culture doesn’t deviate too far from their company culture.
Companies should consider colliding ideas together internally (Maps and AR).
Far from being perfect, technology companies also need help with organization & innovation. There was a time when the tech sector seemed to bleed innovation, but perhaps we were misguided or misled.
Finally, pay attention to our friends at AWS and Meta. AWS’s Location Services and Geospatial Sagemaker products are impressive, and combined with their support of MapLibre; Amazon has the reach to shake things up this year. And don’t forget about Overture Maps, which landed late last year. Their OSM+ model could really shake things up, opening the door for easier open engagement from big mapping companies.
There are two sides to this coin: impacts and risks. Both the SEC and the FCA have announced that by mid-2023, there will be regulations to support Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) filings. To date, this activity has been somewhat unregulated. Looking more like Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) than anything. Obviously, CSR is worthwhile, but with regulations comes a deeper market interest in ESG applications. To put it crassly, with regulation, ESG filing becomes essential rather than optional.
As disingenuous as it sounds, without regulation, the filing of ESG reports will be a boutique activity. With regulation, this becomes a serious and scalable concern. The big four have taken an interest. Geospatial technology could be a major component of the E in ESG. One could even argue that some of the historic Governance concerns could also be measured with historical catalogues of Earth Observation imagery:
Did that organization really do what they said they would do?
Indeed, I am sure some of the more stalwart human geographers amongst us would also argue a strong case for geography being a core Social measurement too.
What does this mean for geospatial? That is still an open question. But we can look at a few obvious patterns. We will need to know where a corporation’s assets are. We will then need to know how those things affect their surrounding environment. Additionally, we will likely want to know what environmental or climate-related risks those assets are subject to. This is the other side of the coin, and it is this flip side which provides me with additional confidence in our interest in climate-related digital geography.
Understanding the environmental and social interfaces of a corporation’s supply chain will be a new and compelling product.
Everything, all the time, all at once
Typically Sparkgeo has avoided the Defence and Intelligence (D&I) environment. This market sector has been a deeply red ocean full of big fish* with exceedingly long buying cycles. When we could operate in so many interesting new markets with little to no competition, why would we be interested?
The change has come with convergence between cloud approaches and new space. While the defence sector is traditionally very well funded, it has generally been lazy in adopting new technology. There is a very reasonable concern over security. Big company “not built here” arrogance is hard to navigate around, so why bother?
Well, with the convergence of expectations from both “nearly pervasive imaging technologies” and the cloud, which provides “conceptually infinite compute,” the D&I community is now asking for much better imagery and insight generation platforms. And this is a reasonable ask because if we unshackle ourselves from single-imaging vendor lock-ins, we can start combining constellations into a single-view, multi-sensor, multi-phenology monitoring platform. Opportunity can only exist with modern, robust and open data standards (STAC & COG, in OGC API, for instance.) But this kind of platform must become commonplace. presently we are seeing marketplaces for data, which is close conceptually, but ultimately we need to see subscriptions to places rather than constellations.
This is only a quick rundown of the most obvious trends I can see. Certainly, my team is investing in the skills we think are most appropriate to tackle these demands. I would also point out that I am frequently wrong, so feel free to tear this apart in the comments section.
In addition to these technical trends, I think we will likely see some more consolidation in the next year. We saw the most recent announcement from Maxar, and the geospatial sector is certainly not recession-proof. The coming year will be exciting, and I am getting strapped in for a wild ride.
*What’s all this about colours and oceans? Check out Blue Ocean Strategy. There are some problems with using this approach alone, but its illustrative power is tremendous.
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