Information, not data

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James Cutler, CEO, eMapSite, looks at how Web services have enabled a new breed of digital geographic data supplier to play the multi-part role of data broker, data assimilation service and presentation toolkit.

Recent years have in part been characterised by the growing ubiquity of tools and technologies that were meant to make us more efficient and productive but have frequently come to be persistent, invasive and disruptive. As business comes to term with these impacts, we are beginning to see some consensus around the need to align these tools with, and integrate them into, business processes rather than see them as a panacea in their own right. Equally, business is coming to terms with the difference between data, the raw material of many activities, and information, or value added and contextualised data as some would have it, in the pathway to knowledge, wisdom and commercial advantage.

In this article we look at this dichotomy and the ways in which the challenges they represent are being served in the world of mapping and related information.

Where are we now?

Well actually many of us are stranded, awash with data while in an information void. In many spheres experts and specialists are being tasked with processing the raw material, often in very standard ways, in order to get to a point where they can begin to exploit it. Where the resources to undertake this are underpinned by costly infrastructure, software licensing, recruitment and retention in the face of repetitive and unchallenging responsibilities, the opportunity (and real) cost of such processing (and of the skills not utilised) is a necessary evil in the absence of any alternative.

At the other end of the spectrum are reports (available from third parties) that use the same raw material and through a combination of commercial imperative and market research apply a series of standardised methods and algorithms to produce a standardised quasi-information product. To an extent these reports have reduced the need for serious analysis, site investigation and modelling as part of the knowledge and wisdom gathering process. However, in the process there is a feeling that the outputs can be too rigid and compromise the capacity for professional advice whilst also creating an unhealthy dependency. In some industries these have been incredibly successful and meet a real need while in others they have often been welcomed initially, become de facto over time and only later challenged or usurped as users become more questioning and sophisticated. To an extent professionals that use digital mapping and related geographic information fall into this latter space.

A Case Study: Site Selection and Assessment
The task: to identify a suitable site for development

The timeframe: “the quicker the better” and “the cheaper the better”

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The options: local knowledge, site visit, web search etc

The risk: poor site selection, spiralling costs, lost opportunity, but “it’s what we’ve always done”

The alternative: unambiguous map-centric web site with fixed visible costs offering multiple search mechanisms, multiple visible frames of reference (mapping) with the opportunity to drill down to other information around the area of interest and to customise output for individual sites and customers.

Sound too good to be true? Well, it’s not; these services are here today and are continually adding to the layers of information that can be interrogated, all in one place. Such services are not fixed reports and there is no substitution of skills at the user’s end; rather there is a recognition that businesses gain value and advantage from understanding the implications of what these services overcome and what they provide.

These services are able to exist and expand thanks to the evolution of web services and the opportunity they offer to move away from resource intensive business towards light-weight client-responsive solutions accessible from anywhere. The underlying technologies provide, almost by definition, a reusable framework of components that enable rapid customisation to ensure inclusion or exclusion of specific functions and alignment with business processes on an as-required basis. This is a truly liberating development, freeing up businesses and professionals to apply their skills to interpreting, advising and consulting.

Of course, the volume of information based products still needs to remain accessible and it is essential that such services embed associated authentication, management, distribution and licensing tools, something we shall examine further in the new year.

Recently, omni-present broadband and the advent of web services have enabled a new breed of supplier to step into the evident gap between raw material and pre-packaged report, playing the multi-part role of data broker, data assimilation service and presentation toolkit. Their mandate – to eliminate lengthy data search, to integrate relevant selected data sources and to offer up a range of outputs (or deliverables) by which the user can access and use what they have selected.

Information/data?

Still readily used inter-changeably by many, the proliferation of data (or more specifically access to it via the web) has accelerated acknowledgement of the difference between it and the information we actually crave. In doing so it has inspired both those who capture the data and those who disseminate it to seek new ways of making data truly accessible. For example, intermediaries are reducing or eliminating visibility of the underlying raw material either through assimilation or integration with other context sensitive data or, as in reports, via interpretative and analytical tools and approaches.

In Great Britain, despite the protestations of some to the contrary, we live in a data rich (and sometimes seemingly costly) environment with mapping and other data available at a level of detail far greater than elsewhere. Owing to regulatory factors and other, primarily government backed drivers data really is accessible, though the precise method of distribution, cost, copyright, royalty, format, metadata, acquisition, delivery etc. may not be to everyone’s liking.

There are a relatively small number of sources for digital mapping and related information (aerial photography, terrain data, building heights, environmental factors, addresses, routing and so on) in any country. As far as anyone can tell, in part from the lack of a highly competitive map production market place, users can be confident that the sources of raw material are with us for the long term. Thus, to a large extent, everyone is using the same raw material and competitive advantage stems from how that is deployed.

Users can and should (on occasion) challenge the adequacy (i.e. quality, integrity, age/currency, frequency, accuracy, coverage, completeness, reliability, sustainability, consistency, timeliness, scale, resolution, collection, sampling methods etc.) of such sources to be sure that they understand the data and how it can be or is being used. Indeed the feedback process is essential in the improvement of existing raw material and in the refinement of various approaches to how the data is processed, analysed and presented.

For some, many even, the raw material remains the key ingredient for their activities and on which their businesses depend. However, for many others, the raw material remains precisely that, inaccessible bits and bytes requiring expertise, resources and time to turn into their key ingredient and it is on this vast array of professionals-under-pressure that this new generation of information intermediary services is focussed.

This article was written by James Cutler, CEO at eMapSite, a platinum partner of Ordnance Survey and online mapping service to professional users.

www.emapsite.com

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