HxGN RadioPodcast

Location Intelligence: Developing and implementing standards with the Open Geospatial Consortium

In this episode of Location Intelligence on HxGN Radio, we talk to Dr. Nadine Alameh, CEO of the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC), and Dr. Frank Suykens, CTO of Platforms at Hexagon’s Geospatial division and member on the OGC’s Board of Directors, about the spatial revolution, the evolving mission of the OGC, and why standards are critical to interoperability and usability. We’ll also discuss some of the latest updates from the organisation’s 2019 Q4 Tech Trends Forecast report.

ML: Hi, and thanks for tuning into Location Intelligence on HxGN Radio. I’m your host, Matt Langan. Welcome to our first episode. We hope you find the topics very relevant to what’s going on in the spatial industry. With more and more geospatial content, services and technology available in the market, there’s never been so much potential for location data integration and analysis, and the issues and challenges of interoperability have never been so accentuated. Keeping end users, developers and solutions providers on the same page has never been more important. Since its formation, the Open Geospatial Consortium mission has been to connect commercial, governmental, non-profit and research organisations to make location information findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable. The OGC and its members do this by developing and prompting open standards for geospatial content. Today I’m talking to Dr. Nadine Alameh, Chief Executive Officer of OGC and Dr. Frank Suykens Chief Technology Officer of Platforms at Hexagon’s Geospatial division and member of OGC’s Board of Directors and we will discuss the spatial revolution, the evolving mission of the OGC, and standards are critical to interoperability and usability. We will also talk about some of the latest updates from the organisation’s 2019 Q4 tech trends forecast report. And Nadine and Frank, welcome to the show and thanks for joining us today.

FS: Thank you, Matt.

ML: Sure thing. It’s great to have you and let’s start off at the top. So, there is some ambiguity when it comes to the term spatial revolution and Nadine from your perspective what does that mean and what do you think is driving it?

NA: Thank you Matt for having me on the show. It’s great to be here alongside Frank. Spatial Revolution. Yeah, some people call it Spatial Revolution. I’ve heard terms like Industry 4.0 and I think whichever way you look at it , for us the geo people it’s an indication that geospatial has moved up the value chain and we see it demonstrated out there and practised as becoming a differentiator and how do we create value out of data that’s related to location. And how the geospatial is becoming and enabler to more domains now than we can actually cover in the podcast. So Spatial Revolution I would say is the combination of the overwhelming availability and diversity of data related to location, smart phones, Internet of Things, drones, connected autonomous vehicles, you name it. You couple that with the advances in computing technology, big data analytics, we all hear about AI and machine learning. The idea is a lot of data, a lot of diverse data and some amazing advances in technology that are making it easier for everybody to process and integrate location or geospatial data. Creating so many opportunities for applications and my favourite businesses. So that’s to me the Spatial Revolution.

ML: That’s great. Thanks, Nadine. There’s certainly a lot going on with this Spatial Revolution today and Frank from your perspective how do you think the Spatial Revolution is affecting end users, developers and also companies in the industry?

FS: Well I agree with what Nadine said on the Spatial Revolution is that it’s impacting more and more industries and more and more end users. And I think, kind of the funny thing is that it’s called Spatial Revolution but actually in my view the real revolution is that spatial data and location is becoming and commodity and it affects everyone but it is expected by end users, by consumers, by everyone, they just expect that data and spatial location is there and works. And one example I thought of in let’s say personal experience on that type of location usage is parking my car. 20 years ago, I had to put some money in the parking metre next to where I parked my car and I could leave it there for an hour. Later on, I could send a text message with the number plate and the ID of the parking metre so that it was registered but it kind of annoyed me because my cell phone knew where I was and I still had to look up the code for that parking metre. And now the apps have gone smarter, so the apps know where I am, they know where the parking metres are, so I just have to say ok, start parking. But even now I’m still a little bit annoyed because when I park my car, my car knows that I’ve parked, my cell phone actually knows that I’ve parked because it says hey, I’ve saved you a parking location, but I still need to get it out to say pay for the parking ticket. So, it really it goes from location and maps being pushed initially by the geo guys. Now really people are demanding more and more that this is just all automatic and almost autonomous.

ML: Interesting. You know Frank in many ways you talk about the new realities of the Spatial Revolution all the way down to the consumer level which is really happening today and along those lines, Nadine tell us about how the OGC and its’ members are evolving themselves to meet these new realities across the spatial industry itself and how do you see this unfolding over the next decade?

NA: Thank you, Matt. I have to comment I love the perspective that Frank provided. Is it the Spatial Revolution or is it location is ubiquitous and expected and everywhere? I love it. And with that in mind I think how we are dealing with this new reality as OGC. I think we are uniquely positioned because we have this geospatial expertise. We have the community of experts all over the world. We’re uniquely positioned to support now this growing demand and creating value out of location data. How are we meeting the new realities? I think in many ways. One I think we are broadening our reach because just like Frank said, we are everywhere so it’s broadening the reach to include not just the traditionally geospatial oriented organisations. So, the consumers and the providers of the traditional geospatial data but also mainstream enterprise IT organisations, start-ups, any business, right? Or any entity. Could be government as well, using now this location information. And I like that we’re positioned in a way to bring the legacy, the solid foundation of geospatial and the fresh perspective on the value. On the new discovered value expected also of this data. So, I think that’s one, broadening the reach. Two, to deal with this reality we are having to amplify what I call our community convening power. So, this is our ability to act as trusted forums for communities, for domains to tackle interoperability challenges. So, to collaborate on the gaps, the requirements, the standards and then the innovation and whether it’s traditional or emerging markets. So, broadening the reach, amplifying the community aspect and last we’re having to engage honestly and this disciplined exercise of monitoring the technology trends so that we can keep up with everything that’s going on behind us. And in that same vein we are having to modernise our entire standards baseline to make this location information which was sort of privy to only the geospatial experts but now it’s available to everyone. So, we’re having to modernise our standards baseline to make this location information findable, accessible, interoperable, usable to meet the requirements of the new realities.

ML: That’s great. Wonderful insights there Nadine. And Frank from your perspective what do you see happening over the next decade regarding spatial content, services and technology?

FS: The obvious answer I think here is more data. We have seen an enormous increase in data in the last decade and this will continue in the next decade and each time it brings its own challenges. If you look back a little bit in time I think location intelligence really started with making maps. Map production over the years with informatization we went through a period of automation and making these things easier. At Hexagon, what we see now is what we call a period of hyper connectivity where really you’re looking at more and different data sources being combined to get better intelligence. And this is linking back to what Nadine said, making that data findable, making that data accessible, with interoperability so that we can connect all these different data sources, combine that data and make the right decisions. That is really where we are now. Trying to make better decisions out of all that spatial data. The next step and the next decade that I see is also in line with the Hexagon vision which is really autonomy. Because the bottle neck that we see now with spatial data are in fact data scientist, for instance. There are not enough data scientist, not enough intelligence specialists who can gather intelligence from the spatial data and make the right decisions and that is where we see the next step in the next decade is really towards autonomous decisions. Not just autonomous cars but using spatial data, combine it with other data, making autonomous decisions. And in those decisions, I think location is at the centre but also the quality of the data needs to be from a very high level to trust the systems to do autonomous decisions. And that is I think one of the challenges also for OGC is on the one hand interoperability but at the same time looking at, for instance data quality to enable those autonomous decisions.

ML: Outstanding. Great insights from both of you and here’s my follow up question based on everything we’ve discussed so far. So, what are some of the hurdles that face location data integration and analysis in the foreseeable future and really over the next 5 to 10 years? And we’ll start with Nadine on this one.

NA: So, Frank’s answer inspired me. I think if I need to categorise them into two hurdles. The first one as Frank mentioned is this interoperability challenge because of the hyper connectivity, right? Because of the increased data sources but also their diversity and especially when I look at the new data sources. They’re coming from entities outside the traditional geospatial and now I’m finding myself always saying let’s not reinvent the wheel. That’s the interoperability challenge. So that’s one. The second one and Frank mentioned it, data science. We had an event called Location Powers Data Science and a few things bubbled up as hurdles. Data quality, yes. You mentioned also, I would call it skills shortage, right? Or not shortage, maybe misalignment because what one data science and who needs to catch up to who, right? Does the geospatial have to catch up to data science or the analysist have to be more geospatial? And very interestingly to technical people like us, ethics and privacy related to location information integration and analysis have also bubbled up which I find very interesting when these issues bubble up from a technical group that’s working on literally connecting the data together.

ML: Great. Thanks, Nadine. Frank, anything to add to that question?

FS: I like indeed the fact that ethics and privacy comes up because it really shows that the location and spatial data has penetrated right up to consumers, users and everywhere. I think 20 years ago we we’re happy to be able to look at and share some geospatial data. Now we’re talking ethics, privacy and in my list, the hurdles, I also had interoperability as one of the top hurdles where I think open standards and OGC plays an important role. I also have performance in that list because the amount of data rises and sharing that data, working with that data, the performance remains critical and this poses a lot of challenges currently and I think more and more in the future. And a third one I have and I think links also back to connecting to different domains is semantics. We can do interoperability and get data from other web services but what does this mean? And that semantics part I think is interesting but it is a part where I think it is still very much is in the research phase. I hope to see some nice evolutions over the next 5 to 10 years to really not just be able to get the data but to better understand what data is this that I’m getting here.

ML: That’s great. You know, Frank, that dove tails perfectly into my next question because one of the things that you did mention was open standards in regards to interoperability and usability and why that is critical. So, if you don’t mind dive a little bit further into that topic and of course we’ll have Nadine jump in when we’re ready.

FS: Yes. Interoperability needs open standards. You cannot have interoperability if you do not know what another system is producing, what another system is sending you and it’s just essential. And this is, in my view, the reason why OGC was founded and it’s also the reason why OGC is so successful from the beginning, in my view, right up until now. If you look at the world that is exchanging spatial data you will find OGC standards everywhere. So, in that sense it is totally critical for that interoperability. If you then look at usability as you say for the user, in my view, interoperability you could look at is the oil in the machine. It makes the machine turn and run and the different parts run together. It doesn’t get stuck, but it is still that machine that makes a task easy or hard for a user. So, interoperability is essential. The usability I think is then the task for companies like Hexagon or others to really provide an easy to use solution to the users or to the other companies and that is really the area where Hexagon tries to differentiate with others. We want to bring the most easy to use, best solutions to our users but at the same time we invest a lot in helping OGC and other organisations to define those standards and to really get interoperability going.

ML: Outstanding. Nadine, I’m sure you have much to add to this one. I’ll pass it over to you.

NA: I don’t know if I can top Frank because his answer is right on and actions speak louder than words so when we talk about how critical open standards are to interoperability; it’s seeing what our members like Hexagon are actually able to provide to their customers as value add because of a standard baseline, right? So, I won’t be shy I’m very biased about this question. Open standards are critical to interoperability and they are a baseline that can support businesses like Hexagon to focus on delivering value to their own customers and help them innovate without getting stuck at the fair part, finding the data and interoperating or reusing. They’re value is just like Frank said , it’s providing solutions that are easy to use to their customers and to me step zero is the standards baseline.

ML: That’s great. And does the OGC or either of you, best practises or guidelines that developers in technologies need to consider, say, when creating spatial applications or services, and what resources does the OGC make available? We’ll start with Nadine on that one.

NA: We don’t have a lot of time, so here’s what, because this is right on, we’re saying we’re trying to expand the region, location is everywhere so people or especially, call them new entrants or whatever, they’re hungry for these best practises because they don’t want to reinvent the wheel themselves. So, what we’re trying to offer is a few things. It sounds cheesy, but honestly it is this power of the OGC membership, the community who are experts in this. They can provide you, they can be your partners going forward. So, I love the examples when we have our geospatial you know, members, are partnering through the OGC process to create new applications, new businesses, and new solutions for customers. I think that’s one. It’s offering the outcomes of our innovation programme and Hexagon has been a participant over the years alongside Luciad. Those innovation projects are a great way to experiment in a safe environment and what comes out of it is those guidelines, you know, those best practises, those initial standards that other people can use and take on. So, I think it’s the whole community, the standards programme, the innovation projects, and not reinventing the wheel together. That’s what we provide.

ML: Outstanding. Frank, anything else to add to that one?

FS: Yeah, maybe. I think it might be a summary of what Nadine said, but, I think the main best practise is that I could advise developers is to become an OGC member. Because, as Nadine mentioned, there’s a lot of things you can get out of OGC, which really helps you to promote that interoperability, to get that interoperability into your systems. So, yeah, become a member and if you’re more looking at from a user or developer side of consuming products that give you that interoperability, I think one of the cool things is that with these open standards, you can choose best of breed because the different components talk to each other. And that’s also a second advice that I would say. Pick best of breed and of course I’m a bit biased, but I think Hexagon and Hexagon Geospatial with product lines like GeoMedia, ERDAS, Luciad, we have some of the best implementations of the OGC standards in the market. So, I would also definitely recommend of course to look at our Hexagon technology used to create solutions.

ML: That’s great. Thank you, both, for those insights. Now, let’s shift and talk about the OGC’s Q4 tech trends forecast and if you both can discuss trends around commodity remote sensing in small sats, 3D model creation, precise positioning and spatial analytics in Python and AR. We’ll start with Nadine on that one.

NA: Thank you, Matt. Thank you for bringing up actually the Technology Trends Forecast Report because it’s a new exercise we’ve been doing as a consortium because we’re all of us trying to keep up with the innovations, not just in geospatial, right? We are keeping up with the innovation and the pace on anything that touches location or is touched by location. So, you can see why it is a tough exercise, but we need it. We have to base our plans as an industry and as businesses and as governments on the outcomes of some solid tech forecasting, so you actually listed a few examples. You mentioned small sats and I think 3D modelling and spatial analytics. Let me pick one. I think I like that example a lot which is the small sats and we call it the “small sats explosion.” I’ll just take an example. NASA, for instance, is one of the strategic members of OGC and they are now engaging in an internal exercise called, “new observing strategy.” Why? Because of the explosion of small sats, because they are going from 75-ish satellites that they maintain and they operate and they build, to about in the order of 6,000 and more small sats by 2025 and we’re already in 2020. So, whatever the exact number is, so you’re going from hundreds to multiple of thousands, that requires a rethinking. A rethinking of how do you collect the data? How do you describe the data? I love that Frank mentioned semantics because we’re not just going to throw data at people. That doesn’t make it useable. How do we connect even those satellites? And also, one of my favourites, how do you process this data? Because now it’s coming at you, this hyper-connectivity, again, back to Frank’s point earlier about one of the hurdles, right? So, the tech trend report looks at the small sats and follows sort of the impact on our industry and our consortium to see how can we be better prepared. So, some people call it new space 2.0, or whatever, but if you think how do we process the data, if you take that further, this leads you to, we need to follow up what’s happening in edge-computing because some of the processing will have to be done by these edge devices, you know, small sats here, it could be Internet of Things somewhere else, it could be drones. Same thing. And this whole new concept of the Grantstation’s as a service. So, the tech is now disrupting even the business model. Those are the topics that we are trying to get a handle on as, again, as a community not each one of us separately and how they impact and disrupt the value chain. Maybe I’ll stop at that example.

ML: That’s great, thank you, Nadine, for those insights on that example. I’ll pass the baton on over to Frank. We would love to hear your take.

FS: Okay, thanks, Matt. Yeah, for us the tech trends report from OGC is really useful and the examples you mentioned I think are all relevant for Hexagon. If I need to pick one, it would be 3D model creation. And just to show that this is indeed also for us a very relevant area that’s appearing in the tech trends report. Hexagon, as maybe some of you may know, has just launched HxDR – Hexagon Digital Reality – which is a cloud platform which serves up the world in very accurate 3D. So, a really large 3D city is being streamed in the cloud to your browser and where you can then add your own 3D models, CAD models, and view them within the context of a real city, for instance. So, for us, Hexagon, that 3D model creation is a very relevant aspect where we do from sensor really up to the data to the applications. But what’s interesting to see is that HxDR, the whole cloud platform that we developed internally again is, let’s say, oiled by the OGC standards. And even it is just a dedicated Hexagon platform that we are offering, yes we internally use those OGC standards. And it will help us later on to open up the whole system to, for instance, other applications, other partners. But just the investment in HxDR I think shows how important for us and for the market really that 3D model creation is.

ML: That’s great. Let’s talk a little bit further about the report. There is the priority tech trends chart for disruptive and sustaining technologies and Nadine, if you don’t mind, if you can tell us about some of the most important standards developments that are currently underway?

NA: Hands-down, slam-dunk, whichever way you want to communicate it, the OGC API’s hands-down is the most important standards development activity that the OGC members are currently engaged in. This is because these new API’s are being developed to tackle everything we’ve talked about so far, right? So, they’re being developed to make it easy for anyone to provide location, geospatial data on the web, building on our standards baseline but making it resource-centric. So, taking advantage of modern web development practises. We’re trying to make it easy for anyone to integrate access to maps, to tiles, to features, to images and so on in their operational systems and applications. I’m sure Frank can provide a more technical and actually more commercial point of view on these OGC API’s and why they’re so important as a standards development activity right now.

ML: That’s great. Frank, I would love to hear more about that.

FS: Yeah, yeah. I can’t stress enough how important this initiative is that the OGC has started and now has, I think, accelerated really over the last maybe two years because in my view, as well, this is hands-down the main thing within OGC right now. If you look at the main standards that are in use now which really power all of the geospatial interoperability in the world right now, it’s like web-map service, web feature server, web coverage service. So, these are standards defined by the OGC actually a long time ago and they’ve evolved over time. These are really the standards that are the most widely used standards right now. And all of these core standards have now been, let’s say, reviewed, and a new, totally new, set of standards is coming out – OGC API – which, as Nadine said, is really following all of the modern web development and web service standards that are available. From a technical point, what I see there is, it will be easier to implement them. They will work nicer with current web technologies which are being used in a lot of other domains. So, it will be easier to interoperate that and incorporate them in different applications. So, it will make the developer’s life easier and I think it will be one big step forward in interoperability to core OGC standards.

ML: That’s great. So, overall, how does the OGC determine which tech trends take priority for standards development? We’ll start with Nadine on that one.

NA: So, we talked about the tech trends forecasting exercise, so that’s one way. But, honestly, we talk to people like Frank, right, who are close to the action. So, our members. They are supporting their customers, so they feel the pain and they’re looking for short-term, medium-term, and long-term support and identifying the gaps and standardisation. The advantage that we get at OGC is that we have such a diverse membership and a global membership across domains and agencies and countries that you can start to bubble up, right, at least the common themes. This is where the OGC API’s would come up, for example, because they’re not domain specific and they impact, you know, our commercial members and our government members. And that’s how we can collectively provide the direction of where to invest our time and our resources and our R&D, right, in these activities. And then, we take it one step further, so this is identifying the gaps, or the requirements, we have the innovation programme was set up to test things out before we go full-force on anything. Just being agile, right? I say it, action speaks louder than words, so instead of us pontificating about whether things work or not, let’s just try it with our own hands and then that feeds into the standards development. So, look at the general IT, talk to people like Frank who are imbedded in real life, right, and then experiment, and then standardise.

ML: Outstanding. Frank, that teed it up perfectly for you here to add on any other thoughts to that question?

FS: I had a very similar answer in mind. In my view, as well, yes, the members determine a lot on priority for OGC because the OGC and OGC staff really listen to their members. Where are the pinpoints? What is important? I’ve been on the board of directors for OGC now since a couple of years, and also there, it’s very nice to see how well OGC staff wants to listen to its members and really do what is relevant. I think OGC API again is a very nice example where it really started maybe small but then was picked up by OGC staff and other members added on like, “hey, this is important for us as well,” and then OGC staff kind of broadened this a bit and did a number of initiatives like hackathons to make sure, okay, do we have all of the members inputs and this is the way how the OGC API initiative became so big. And this is really the OGC listening to us members providing input and, in my view, that is what works.

ML: That’s great. You know, it’s been a wonderful podcast today and we’re pretty much at the end. I wanted to see if you all had any closing thoughts or ideas you would like to share with the audience and any key takeaways they should think about from this conversation and we’ll start with Nadine on that one.

NA: Matt, I think if there is one main takeaway from my perspective it would be to urge the listener to get engaged with OGC. To join, to come to the meetings, or to follow the development of the OGC API’s and the tech trends because we are living in some combination of exciting and scary and challenging times in terms of complexity of our world and the interconnectedness of everything, not just the technologies. We can’t address these challenges of data and system interoperability in silos, anymore. That’s to me the value of OGC of a consortium for a forum, for partnerships, for collaboration on the basics, on the standards, that impact everybody who is using or producing this location data. So, my main message is urging people to get engaged with this community of experts that’s OGC. So, please join us.

ML: Outstanding. Thank you so much, Nadine. Frank, any parting words today?

FS: Yeah, maybe one thing is that interoperability, and I think that’s partly due to the success of OGC and other standardisation organisations. Interoperability seems like a given in this world. Things work, things talk to each other. But, one thing I want to stress is, building a good standard is hard. It is really really hard. And I’ve cooperated on some small aspects, some standards, but if you look at members and OGC staff working on those standards and meeting and really drilling down into the heart technical details to get those standards right, it should not be underestimated. Maybe closing remarks is that I have a lot of respect for those people that build those standards and try to get them right and at the same time maybe give the same messages like Nadine like, “hey, why don’t you join the OGC and become a member and help us out building those better standards?”

ML: Perfect. Great parting words there from both of you and I would like to say a big thank you to Nadine and Frank for joining us today and we definitely look forward to having you back on Location Intelligence. And thank you for all of our listeners for tuning in to Location Intelligence on HxGN Radio. For more great stories and podcasts, visit HxGNSpotlight.com.