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Cloud computing technology benefits GIS

First publishedin ITS International
May June 2012
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Cloud base GIS
Cloud-base GIS provides a means of communicating geospatial data to a much wider audience than has been possible previously (Picture: Sivan Design)

Geographic Information Systems are a relatively late adopter of cloud computing,but the benefits of host services for geospatial data and analysis are becoming clear. Jason Barnes reports

Both the concept and the reality of cloud computing have been around for some time. More and more industry sectors are entrusting external service providers with the provision of their computing services via the internet. However, the Geographic Information System (GIS) industry has been slow to embrace the trend. This is due in part to the complex nature of GIS software and the types of analyses for which it is used.

This slow pick-up is illustrated by the fact that as late as 2009 the giscloud.com internet domain name remained free, according to Dino Ravnic, co-founder and CEO of Croatian company GIS Cloud. The company name is self-explanatory: GIS Cloud provides a cloud-based service which enables users to create, edit, analyse and share maps and geospatial data from literally anywhere.

“GIS is one of those rare software sectors which remains largely desktop-dependent. It can’t be excluded, however, and cloud is the obvious next trend,” Ravnic says.

“Why has GIS not embraced cloud to a significant degree thus far? There are lots of technical limitations when dealing with spatial data, a lot of effort associated with rendering.”

Pervasiveness

One of the drivers of change, Ravnic says, is the sheer pervasiveness of GIS. Within a typical city, for example, GIS as a software product is used by many individuals within many different departments and offices. A good proportion of these are technical professionals, but a lot of other people need access to the information GIS generates. For instance, mayors need a feel for what is happening in the places they govern, as do other policy-makers and strategists. Gaining access via a tablet computer is a far easier way in which to do things.

In short, cloud computing greatly increases the ability to exchange information both inside and outside organisations. GIS in the cloud opens up new levels of complexity to those who already know how to use electronic maps but may not yet have any experience of using GIS.

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GIS systems
GIS systems' layered information on visible and hidden infrastructure is a powerful workforce support tool, particularly when hosted in the cloud (Picture: Sivan Design)
“The difference is in the user experience,” Ravnic continues. “A few years ago, few people knew how to use a digital map. Now, for instance, people are more familiar with how they can be used to find places to eat and sleep.”

Use of electronic maps is a great way to open up GIS-based decision-making to professionals. Ravnic says: “Take a city, the various verticals in a GIS map and the management of assets such as potholes: via cloud, the latest versions of databases can be held in a central location but continually updated.

Information can be sent remotely by field workers which is time and location-stamped and which can all be synced. The locations of potholes can be reported and logged for repairs using just a smartphone. The city’s officials become much more informed and aware but the whole workflow process is much better than is achieved by attempting to merge heterogeneous systems.

Growing functionality

The disadvantage, at present, is that GIS via the cloud cannot yet give the full functionality of desktop versions. That is changing fast, says Ravnic.

“GIS is a scientific tool with lots of capabilities. What we currently offer are features needed by many users, including visualisation of information and some basic analyses. The more advanced capabilities of desktop GIS are not needed by a large number of users. But HTML5 makes fully featured GIS possible via the cloud and I think that a fully featured cloud-based solution will be with us within two to three years.”

Institutional attitudes

As Ravnic sees it, an obstacle in the near term is psychological in nature. Many organisations are still wary of the very nature of cloud computing, principally due to data security concerns and discomfort surrounding ‘abandoning’ in-house data to external service providers. One way around that is to enable private clouds. A service provider would install a discrete server on behalf of an organisation.
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GIS systems

“There is a perception that data is somehow safer when held in-house but that’s not always so. Big cities and large companies might be able to make big investments in data centres which offer greater levels of security, but that does not hold true for smaller municipalities and companies where the ‘data centre’ is a box into which someone can simply insert a USB stick and download even the most confidential of information. Security is very often about the individuals within an organisation.

“If you look at companies such as Google and Amazon, which supply email and other services to millions which often include quite substantial debit and credit card payments, their security measures are top notch. Cloud computing is actually far more secure in certain circumstances.”

At a software level, cloud brings new ways of integrating disparate systems and according to Ravnic, once they are ready to deploy, companies don’t have to contend with the issues associated with due diligence. GISCloud provides a public, multi-tenant service and potential users can try it without cost, even for extended periods, before committing to using it fully. Also, in cloud, users do not get multiple releases: the software solutions evolve daily and users always get the latest, debugged versions. There is a real opportunity for organisations to divest the costs of procuring and owning software products.

Open systems

Cloud, if done right, is also an answer to a perennial software problem: that of vendor lock-in. Vendors supply proprietary or bespoke systems with data formats and functionalities which make it incredibly difficult for customers to retrieve their own data and switch allegiance to another provider. Cloud, by contrast, is an open system. Ravnic points to the work done by the team behind the Salesforce customer relations management product and the ease with which it integrates with SAP and Oracle as an example of what can be done.

“Cloud actively encourages openness,” he says. “If you want to be on the cloud, then you have to talk to everyone, to integrate with others’ services and software.”

Towards greater outreach

Cloud-based GIS is currently not so much a work tool as it is a means of reaching people, says Sivan Design marketing manager Nir Bar: “It’s essentially a web publishing tool for 3D GIS information. Where cloud-based GIS really scores is in its ability to reach people. That has advantages for city planners looking to see how a skyline will look, for instance, because it also allows members of the public to provide live feedback. The latter can see what a proposed new development will look like and how it will affect their own properties, even down to the effects of light and shadow at different times of the day. Being able to put such information into the public domain so readily can help to reduce objections to planning proposals, saving money and time.”

But even for non-GIS specialists, there are significant professional benefits, says Bar. The contractor can use a tablet computer to survey his or her immediate environment. GIS’s multi-layered nature means that underground infrastructure can be located to within a centimetre, showing where it is safe to dig without hitting water mains, power supplies and so on.

“Cloud-based GIS does not yet have the full application set of a desktop version. Such capabilities will continue to emerge over time, but I would question whether that’s actually necessary – do members of the public need access to the tools for editing and design?”

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