Some thoughts while squinting at the geospatial future

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I remember getting a demo of some new high resolution aerial imagery a few years ago. The person giving the demo zoomed down into someone’s backyard to the point where I was able to see a plastic fork on a paper plate left on a picnic table.

And not just the rough shape of the fork, but its delicate little teeth! From the sky! Someone had just been nibbling cake, it would appear, from the crumbs that were also visible.

As the demoer described how this imagery could be used to help property assessors make faster, easier, more accurate assessments my brain deviated from the script and zoomed out to the big picture. Surely this is about more than taxing people better, even if that is an immediate and valid business case.

My thoughts drifted back to art school and reading about Marshall McLuhan who theorized that every new medium first imitates the content of a medium that preceded it. Or something like that. When you first invent the motion picture camera you think, “How can I film a stage play?” Eventually you realize you can do completely new and different things with the technology, and culture changes.

Those of us who develop and sell geospatial data and services are very familiar with helping existing processes happen faster, easier, and more accurately. We often supercharge stage plays with known scripts. It’s what customers pay for right now, and so, accordingly, we focus in that direction.

At the same time I think that many of us also have a creeping feeling that something big is changing, and that helping people do the things we already do “faster, easier, and more accurately” will begin to flip over into doing things differently, with a different awareness of what the powers and responsibilities of our industry are. 

The reason why this will happen is that the geospatial world is just getting too good, too high-resolution, too intimate, too powerful, and too pervasive to believe it’s about improving all the things we did when there was very little light in the room.

The lights aren’t blinding yet, but they are rapidly brightening with no indication of slowing down. The world which was once largely unknowable is now a 25,000-mile-around ball that we surveil at greater and greater resolution and frequency each year. Algorithms scour the entirety of its surface to make sense of what’s on it. Billions of people wander the globe with location-aware devices, taking pictures and video, talking, noting their sentiments, and drawing a live social graph as profiles of each of them are created and connected. Government databases and facts are flowing into the mix. Everything is getting appended together. Many companies chase the dream of being the one that somehow owns all of this.

But when we can see all the plastic forks on all the paper plates all the time everywhere, and the plates can be matched to people and things and facts around them, and algorithms constantly crunch it all for insights, correlations, and predictions, then pantomiming the past and doing what we’ve always done will feel silly to the point of farce. 

Geospatial data will more fully enter the world of community and political conversation where it’s role in society will be discussed, redirected, and reshaped.

I’ll give you a brief example of something I know from our home base in Detroit. For more than a decade there has been an out of control tax foreclosure problem. Tens of thousands of primarily Black Detroiters lost their homes due to overassessed property taxes, lack of access to available programs, usurious interest rates, and lack of prompt action. The geospatial data is there to show this, and it has been publicized, but the stage play still plows forward, trying to identify the vacant homes for demolition or to sell them to new people, without a concept of reparation, justice, or healing it could have. 

When I squint at the future, I see something similar coming for the geospatial world as is currently happening to the Big Tech companies who are being scrutinized for the power they have over people’s lives, what happens to people’s data, who chooses what information people see, how to stop bad actors, and so on. 

There will be questions about the impact of geospatial data and the geospatial industry on the economy, privacy, racism, bias, equal opportunity, environmental health, sustainability, and every pressing issue we currently debate through other lenses. 

Who is using the data? Where does it come from? Why do only some people have some of it? Why does *anyone* have some of it? What kind of algorithms are being run on the data to make decisions? What are their biases and financial incentives to change the landscape in one way or another? How is that affecting people’s lives and the environment?

There will be questions about who in the geospatial world may have a Monopoly on certain services or datasets that should be opened up or regulated. 

How will it all play out? Hey, man, I just work here, but it feels like something different is getting pretty close. Maybe not this year or next year, and maybe it will continue to be a slow change without clear definition, but as things progress it’s always a thought in the back of my mind that we’re an event or two away from a noticeable change in the landscape. 

Accordingly I try to adopt a posture within the industry that allows us to deliver “faster, easier, more accurate,” while retaining an open heart and open mind with the flexibility and humbleness to evolve, and to help others do so as well.

Not to speak for that little fork, but those are some thoughts on the mind from here in spring 2021.

Jerry Paffendorf is CEO of Loveland Technologies, makers of landgrid.com. Landgrid provides a nationwide standardized property dataset of approximately 150 million parcel boundaries with ownership, land use, and other info across the US. During the pandemic Jerry moved from Detroit to Calumet, MI, a former copper mining capital on the Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where he nurses a very amateur geology habit (meaning he brings too many rocks home from Lake Superior beaches).

1 COMMENT

  1. Rock on, Jerry! Your essay is a great read. Your thoughts of new horizons we can’t yet see, but know are there, buoy my hope for life-affirming change coming beyond surveillance-state authoritative commands. Thanks!

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