Companies whose businesses make their homes online want everyone in the world to have access to the internet. That’s how they make money. In some ways, everyone stands to benefit from this ambition, perhaps most of all GIS and mapping specialists. Because in order to achieve this goal of world wide web colonization, these companies need to know where people live, and how best to reach them.
GIS mapping is used to track disease outbreaks, from the annual spread of the flu to the spread of ebola worldwide. This is possible because in these cases it is easy to answer the question “where” which enables analysts to look at the “how” and “why” things happen.
The power of GIS is also harnessed when natural disasters occur. Mapping populations and their movements lets rescuers and health care workers trained in disaster preparedness and response know where to set up relief stations and where to concentrate their efforts.
The population data for the United States is extremely detailed, as is that of those international areas where there have been disease outbreaks, natural disasters, or some other reason necessitating mapping populations. The population of less developed and more remote areas is not as accurately documented for a number of reasons.It’s not just relief agencies and governments that have an interest in developing this population data. Many large companies have their own interest.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia
Google has a vested interest in population data. There are 4 billion humans who do not yet have access to the internet, and the company needs to know how best to get internet access to them. Google is no stranger to GIS and mapping.
Google Earth, Google’s consumer level GIS tool, and even Google Earth Pro are now available for free. While their parent company Alphabet intends to stay in the consumer mapping game, they have backed off their more advanced GIS offerings.
Google decided in January of 2015 to depreciate the services in Google Earth Enterprise. ESRI with their ArcGIS Earth containing 2D and 3D components are stepping in to assist those clients. The first to make the full transition was the National Interagency Fire Center’s (NIFC) app Fire Globe. The NIFC is the nation’s support center for wildland firefighting, made up of eight federal agencies and organizations.
Photo Credit: ESRI
Part of the issue is that constantly updating imagery is problematic. Google updates twice a month, around the sixth and the twentieth, but each update only covers a very small part of the globe. Google’s goal is that the imagery from any one area not be any more than three years old.
For truly accurate mapping of populations, something better was needed. The answer wasn’t driving vans with cameras mounted on top around the entire globe, or being satisfied with some of the more dated information in Google Earth.
Enter Facebook, who also has a bottom line interest in population mapping. They two want to spread the internet to the unreached parts of the globe, whether that is by running a landline, satellites, high altitude hot air balloons, or by drone. The way to determine the best method for each unique situation is to accurately map the population of the entire world as thoroughly as possible.
Since there was no map that completely satisfied these needs, Facebook took the Columbia University gridded map of the world, the best data available to date, which is okay, although much of the imagery is low resolution, and went to work. First, they bought millions of kilometers of high resolution imagery from DigitalGlobe. Then they taught their software to study the sub-metric imagery to recognize what a building looked like from above.
Sub Metric Imagery: Photo Credit: Facebook
The software made a simple assumption: if there is a building present, there must be people in it. So it estimated urban density by the number of buildings it saw. Sounds simple, and it is, except the computing power to analyze 21.6 million square kilometers of 20 countries, basically “14.6 billion images, more than ten times as much as all the images analyzed by Facebook on a daily basis,” it says.
Final maps will be available this summer, and if this works, it proves imagery can be analyzed without a human at the keyboard. This enhances the usefulness of the imagery sure to be generated by private satellite companies, some who promise revisit rates of many areas of six to seven times per week.
While Facebook’s Free Basics program has been effectively blocked in India, as the company has been accused of a “new colonialism,” they continue to make progress, stating that all humans have a right to access the internet. The other side states that Free Basics makes Facebook a gatekeeper with too much leverage.
Speaking of companies with too much leverage, the often maligned internet retail giant is doing some great stuff with mapping as well, something that paves the way for other businesses to do the same.
Photo Credit: Amazon
The company has recently released geographic data on authors, sellers, and developers using Amazon to reach new customers, and they overlaid that data on a map of the United States. The fact that they opened their first physical bookstore reveals one of the many uses for this data, something determined by paying the store a visit. The demographic and sales data the company has gathered was all leveraged to stock books and other goods those living in that area are already interested in.
The combination of this big data and GIS enables companies to locate and target their customers like never before, making inventory lean and mobile.
The partial automation of the process adds to the opportunities for GIS technicians and application developers. With worldwide imagery frequently updated the opportunities in business, healthcare, resource location, archeology, sustainability, and other fields is astounding.
Google started with showing us images of the world around us, even how things looked from the streets of that world. Facebook wants the world to be connected, and who doesn’t like that? Amazon wants to know what people in certain areas need and want, so they can target them as customers.
All of this points to the importance of answering the question of “where.” No one is better suited to do that than GIS Users.
Troy Lambert is a freelance writer, editor, and non-profit consultant by day, and a suspense thriller author by night. He learned about the power of GIS while working as a researcher at a museum, and is always looking for ways to apply this technology and big data in new and innovative ways. Troy is an avid cyclist, skier, and hiker. He lives, works, and plays in Boise, Idaho. His work can be found at troylambertwrites.com, and you can connect with him on Twitter @tlambertwrites.