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Has Geospatial Technology Finally Gone Mainstream? A Report from SXSW Interactive 2010 – Part 1

By Matt Hiland
March 26, 2010

As an experienced GIS practitioner, I tend to take geospatial data and technology for granted. Although I shouldn’t be, I’m still surprised when otherwise tech-savvy people don’t know about map projections, satellite imagery, or the global positioning system. With the growing popularity of personal navigation devices, online mapping applications, and geospatial mobile phone applications, it appears that the technology is finally becoming mainstream. Curious about what impact that might have on the job market for geographers and GIS specialists, I decided to check out what the presenters at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive conference had to say.

From their website: “An incubator of cutting-edge technologies, the SXSW® Interactive Festival brings together the world’s most creative web developers, designers, bloggers, wireless innovators, content producers, programmers, widget inventors and new media entrepreneurs. Five days of captivating keynote presentations and provocative panel sessions provide hands-on training as well as big-picture analysis of the future of this industry.” SXSW Interactive has developed a reputation for identifying and promoting “next big things” in technology and media. Browsing through the program, I noticed a definite increase in the number of geospatial technology related presentations over previous years.

One of the best sessions was titled “LBS 101: Geolocation on the Horizon” ( Presented by Jason Finkelstein, Director of Product Management and Marketing at WaveMarket, Inc., this was billed as an interactive workshop about the vast array of use cases for location based services (LBS). LBS was defined as automated services that use the physical location of your device (i.e. mobile phone, in-car navigation, personal navigation, etc.). The key premises of the presentation were that (1) LBS is here and now, not still an up-and-coming thing; (2) LBS is no longer its own industry, but a truly horizontal tool that can be applied to numerous business needs; and (3) we are currently only seeing the tip of the LBS iceberg. In the near future, we can expect ubiquitous LBS, location-based check-in functions, friend finders, location searches, crowd sourced traffic (and other) data, and fraud prevention applications.

Only 18.5% of mobile phones in the U.S. are smart phones, and not all of those have GPS capabilities. While all mobile phones can be located via cell tower triangulation (this is required by laws establishing the E911 system), traditional mobile phones often do not have sufficient operating systems, displays, or interfaces for LBS applications. Nonetheless, the number and use of LBS applications are expected to rise along with the increasing percentage of smart phones.

The SXSW Interactive crowd was not the typical demographic. Well over half of the audience had GPS-enabled smart phones and many of them were comfortable with using LBS. However, even in this audience, there was some resistance to adoption of LBS applications based on privacy concerns related to exposing a person’s location. This was even clearer later in the week, at a SXSW Music panel. Those attendees included a much smaller percentage of smart phone users, and about half of the crowd raised their hands when asked whether the idea of geolocating your personal cell phone “kinda creeps you out.”

Mr. Finkelstein contrasted LBS with GIS, which he defined as geospatial data creation and analysis. In other words, GIS was described as a business-to-business function, while LBS is business-to-consumer. GIS is still considered by the LBS market as its own industry and one that will remain critical in supporting LBS. Therefore, the combination of programming skills with deep knowledge of geography, cartography, and GIS will remain attractive to employers in both traditional GIS and LBS organizations for years to come.
In Part 2: Mitigating the “Creep” Factor of LBS.