The GeoWeb Mindset

A veteran surveyor on our editorial board discusses a new kind of mapping that requires a new kind of mapper.

By Rudy Stricklan, RLS, GISP

Imagine explaining to someone born in this century that cellular phones did not use to have internet access, and they weren’t able to determine where you’re standing or what direction you’re facing.  And, for that matter, autonomous global positioning itself didn’t even exist when cell phones were first in use. That youngster would be, like, RME (rolling my eyes) or even ROTFL (rolling on the floor laughing).

The ubiquity of location sensors in consumer devices—and their internet-enabled connectivity—is defining a new mapping paradigm. The technologies and collaborative interactivity that typify the trend known as Web 2.0 set the stage for a new type of mapping professional, as well. And, although many surveyors got stuck in the automated mapmaking model of CAD and were left behind when the map-as-database GIS bus pulled away, the GeoWeb phenomenon offers our industry a way to leapfrog into 21st-century mapping.

A New Geospatial Entry Point for Surveyors

GeoWeb mapping is still a relatively new phenomenon. Whereas Geographic Information System (GIS) had its beginnings and much of its early existence in academia or the government, confined to expensive computing machinery, nearly all GeoWeb technology is free or pay as you go. Moreover, GeoWeb’s software glue (Javascript, HyperText Markup Language, etc.) is procedural in nature, meaning that it works in a more open and descriptive fashion than “black-box” GIS software modules.

The openness of GeoWeb coding, along with its low-cost availability to anyone with a computer connected to the internet, presents a new opportunity for surveyors to get involved on the ground floor of a new wave in geospatial data processing. As well, we’ve got the chance to help steer the bus this time around.

What is GeoWeb?

Meriting its own entry in Wikipedia, the abbreviation GeoWeb stands for the term Geospatial Web. It “implies the merging of [location-based information] with the abstract information that currently dominates the Internet.”1 Location, meet the internet.

As just one example, GPS-equipped smartphone users work with GeoWeb technology as more than just another app. Geo (as the younger set and Geo-Web developers call it) is an integral part of their mobile information universe: Where am I? Where did I park my car? What restaurants/shops/friends are nearby—and which of those match my current tastes?

What’s most striking—and revolutionary—about GeoWeb is its democratization of location information. No longer is geospatial processing and its application confined to GIS experts. Enabled by easy-to-use, intuitive web browser interfaces, GeoWeb defines a new commons where users query—and contribute—information from and to a geospatially enabled web. Technically, GeoWeb functionality incorporates the following features.

Web browser interfaces
In keeping with its name, GeoWeb lives on the Web, which consists primarily of documents in HyperText Markup Language (HTML) that are linked together (hyperlinked) using the internet as the communications mechanism. HTML documents can link to or embed image file formats (such as JPEG), and voilà—maps are displayed.

Web browsers (such as Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, Firefox, and Safari) are used to access and display information on the web. Browsers are ubiquitous: they are free, work on nearly any type of computing device, and were intended to be vendor-neutral and non-proprietary. That hasn’t quite been the case, as each browser developer tends to tweak its particular products for specific hardware or software. Still, modern browsers can render map visualizations remarkably quickly and with less reliance on “plug-ins” that were heretofore necessary to speed up graphics performance. The requirement for proprietary, expensive software to render web-based maps is a thing of the past.

Open-source software and standards
Geospatial data storage and manipulation has traditionally been confined to proprietary software developed by GIS industry vendors such as Esri or Intergraph. However, when spatial datatypes (i.e., points, lines, and polygons, among other features) and attendant query/analysis functionalities were incorporated within industry-standard relational databases such as Oracle and Microsoft SQL Server, a trend of decoupling geospatial storage from proprietary, frontend GIS software emerged. Purist GeoWeb proponents, though, prefer completely open source software across the board.

Open source refers to software programs that are normally free and have their source code openly published for other developers to add desired functionality. Open source is a philosophical ideal as well. Again according to Wikipedia, “The idea of open source is to eliminate the access costs of the consumer and the creator by reducing the restrictions of copyright. This will lead to creation of additional works, which build upon previous work and add to greater social benefit.”2

GeoWeb developers tend to use open-source, spatially-enabled databases such as PostgreSQL/PostGIS, Google Fusion Tables or Apache Hadoop variants such as MapReduce and Cassandra. For making map visualizations from the raw geodata contained in these databases, open-source tools like Mapnik or TileMill are current favorites.

The final piece in the GeoWeb deployment stack is an open-source map server like GeoServer or MapServer. Map servers, fittingly enough, serve up the rendered maps to the internet in the form of web map services (WMS):  standardized inter-machine communications protocols for georeferenced data transfer. The specific format for WMS communications has been published by the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC).

The programming language that most GeoWeb developers use to tie all of these pieces together is Javascript. Although influenced by the Java language, Javascript is a separate coding language altogether. It is most frequently used to customize and enhance web browser capabilities, interpreting Javascript-specific code in the HTML documents returned to browsers for display.

Because it executes on the user’s local system, Javascript is speedy and used for functions like mouseovers—text messages or images that pop up as the mouse cursor passes over hyperlinked portions of the displayed webpage. For GeoWeb applications, Javascript programmers cull spatial functionality from modules like OpenLayers or Leaflet. The proliferation of Javascript-callable code modules is extensive, and confusing. However, the coding structure is open and understandable.

The ultimate authority on geospatial open source and accompanying industry standards is the Open Geospatial Consortium, “an international industry consortium of 400+ companies, government agencies and universities participating in a consensus process to develop publicly available [geospatial] interface standards.” The OGC’s published standards on spatial data storage are in fact adhered to in the commercial space by Esri, Oracle, and Microsoft SQL Server.

The cloud
Downloading large geospatial datasets such as lidar point clouds and sub-foot pixel orthophotography is not practical no matter how much storage you have on your computing device. Why copy the data if it can be made available at the push of a button? There’s also the issue of data currency, especially in real-time situations like disaster management. The preferable data-management solution, therefore, is to have geospatial data repositories accessible from the “cloud,” i.e., resident on internet servers provided by vendors such as Amazon. In contrast to remote servers accessed through an always-on network connection, cloud computing and storage is provided on an as-needed, pay-as-you-go basis much like metered electricity.  Through this type of service, anyone can harness near-unlimited computing power by simply renting it—no upfront investment required.

Most of the database solutions previously described are accessible only from the cloud—no matter how beefy your local computer servers are. These databases work over massive groups of computers operating in parallel, like the sub-second response process Google employs when analyzing and delivering results from your search request.

Like the Web itself, GeoWeb functionality needs to be accessible at any time and from anywhere that has a wireless or cellular internet connection. According to Mary Meeker, a managing director at Morgan Stanley and head of their global technology research team, more users will connect to the internet over mobile devices than desktop PCs by the end of 20143. Mobile-only users expect a seamlessly integrated GeoWeb experience, optimized for touch-screen interaction. Moreover, consumers immersed in a location-aware sensor environment will want to employ that functionality in ways that haven’t even been dreamed of yet.

Visual Tour
The map visualizations enabled by GeoWeb technology are not typically your father’s idea of maps (or those of most traditional cartographers, for that matter). GeoWeb maps are interactive, pulled together from many different sources (some real-time, like traffic volume feeds or weather conditions), and intuitive to navigate.

One of the more innovative websites that incorporates cutting-edge GeoWeb design elements is the Autostadt4 attraction in Wolfsburg, Germany. Resembling a Disneyland for Volkswagen customers, the Autostadt center incorporates a museum, display areas for the Volkswagen Group car line (including Lamborghini, Bugatti, and Audi), production factory tours, and a multimedia cinema housed in a large sphere. If you can’t afford to travel there, the Autostadt virtual tour on its website is the next best thing.

What’s in It for Us?

It’s becoming increasingly alarming to learn that the characteristic that most distinguishes us as surveyors—position determination and its application—is being co-opted by barbarians at our own gates. Or, at least that’s the perception of many surveyors. Over my lifetime, I’ve observed that many surveyors tend to have a kind of schizophrenic view of new technologies. If such technologies directly increase their productivity, and work according to their current paradigm, then they’re a Good Thing. Technologies that skew the status quo and traditional approaches, such as GPS-controlled earthwork grading and crowd-sourced mapping, tend to upset us beyond the point of rational reaction. We don’t perceive such issues as business opportunities; we see them as threats requiring legislative remedies to protect our rightful territory of expertise.

What I’ve found interesting in my association with the GeoWeb crowd is that they welcome and want geospatial-positioning professionals involved with their work. Maybe it’s because collaboration is integral to the social media aspect of web interactivity—sharing is a Good Thing, whether it’s data or knowledge. There’s less of the “this is my turf” provinciality with GeoWeb people, in contrast to still-lingering bad blood between surveyors and GIS practitioners in many parts of the country.

What can we surveyors contribute? For one thing, we can jump right into the middle of GeoWeb programming. Although it all sounds very intimidating with terms like “event-driven” and “web services,” the structure of web interactivity is very “toolbox” in nature. Once you jump in, you’ll find that GeoWeb programming is more intuitive and understandable to left-brain thinkers like surveyors. Future articles in this series will dive into the fundamentals of web programming.

We can also, and should, provide the authoritative positioning certification necessary for many web-served databases. When geospatial data is mixed from many different websites, the end product is no better than the least-accurate source. We can, and should, be involved in verifying the metadata for foundation data. “Surveyor-grade” data could become an important, and remunerated, distinction provided by professional surveyors for GeoWeb data vendors.

Another technical area surveyors can help with is preparing geospatial data for efficient GeoWeb utilization. We work mostly in locale-specific coordinate systems, but the lingua franca coordinate system of GeoWeb is Web Mercator. Web content providers such as Google Maps and Bing Maps use the Web Mercator coordinate system exclusively, and although most GeoWeb map servers can reproject different systems on the fly, it is recommended GeoWeb practice to have everything in Web Mercator to provide the fastest possible performance.

At its core, GeoWeb is focused on geospatial data and its intuitive presentation. In a nutshell, that pretty much describes what we’re all about as well, right?

WhereCamp Offers Opportunities

At a WhereCampPHXunconference” held in Phoenix recently, considerable time was spent discussing cooperation between surveyors and GeoWeb professionals. Presentations on this issue will be held at future chapter meetings of the Arizona Professional Land Surveyors Association and a conference track at next year’s APLS state conference.

Let’s not miss this chance to get aboard the GeoWeb bus. Compared to proprietary GIS, the fare is much lower and seating is open to all. Maybe we can even help drive it this time around.

Rudy Stricklan, RLS, GISP is a member of the editorial board of this magazine and principal consultant with Mapping Automation, LLC.

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