The theme for this year's annual conference of the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS), March 7 to 11, was "Geospatial Goes Global: From Your Neighborhood to the Whole Planet." The setting was the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel in Baltimore, Maryland and the views of the harbor drew many compliments from the participants. Aimed at a wide variety of professionals ranging from surveyors to educators, from geographers to planners, from analysts to, of course, photogrammetrists the conference included more than 400 technical and special session presentations and more than 70 poster sessions.
Chip Groat, director of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) gave the opening keynote address. He discussed the Earth Summit process that is creating agreements among the space fairing nations of the world to more effectively integrate their Earth observation programs and exchange the resulting Earth observation data. Other plenary session speakers during the conference included Santiago Borrero, the secretary general of the Pan American Institute of Geography and History; Karen Schuckman, the new president of ASPRS and director of geospatial applications for EarthData Solutions; ESRI president Jack Dangermond; and Bertram Beaulieu, the director of the Office of Americas in the Analysis and Production Directorate of the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).
In conjunction with the conference, a tour visited the Maryland Emergency Operations Center for a live demonstration and another tour visited the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center for a presentation on the NASA EOS Terra, Aqua, and Aura satellite operations. You can read the entire program here.
ASPRS staff told me that 1150 people had registered prior to the start of the conference. They predicted that Friday, the last day of the conference, would see a large influx of "locals", including many who had not pre-registered, because the Potomac Region of the organization, which helped to plan the event, is very active. However, the number of nationalities represented clearly showed that ASPRS continues to be an international show, even though it is not billed or marketed that way.
This year's 77 exhibitors were more than ever before. As could be expected given the show's location, a short drive from Washington, D.C., many of the vendors that had booths in the exhibit hall cater to national security needs and agencies. While several exhibitors commented that the exhibit hall was a bit small for the number of booths, they unanimously agreed that "booth traffic" was excellent. Perhaps a contributing factor was the cold and blustery weather outside, which discouraged participants from exploring the neighborhood between technical sessions. Philip Kern, North and Central America program manager for Intergraph's Earth Imaging Solutions Centre, expressed a common sentiment among the exhibitors when he told me "We came with very low expectations, but it's been incredible."
There was also widespread agreement that the overlap between this show and the meeting of the Geographic Information & Technology Association (GITA) in Denver, Colorado did not make sense.
FROM 2D TO 3D
Regardless of the conference's official theme, two themes jumped out at me in the exhibit hall: 3D visualization and imagery.
The accelerating transition from 2D to 3D visualization, which began about five years ago [for a primer on 3D GIS see "3D GIS: A Technology Whose Time Has Come," by Gary Smith and Joshua Friedman, in the November 2004 issue of Earth Observation Magazine], was evident to me as I walked around the exhibit floor. This development is driven in part by the increasing demand for spatial visualization to assist with homeland defense. As the audience for maps expands rapidly, adding the third dimension makes them more accessible. In particular, adding true texture to buildings and terrain gives people who are not used to working with maps a better sense of scale and of the relationship of features.
FILM VS. DIGITAL
As for imagery, I was able to identify two big issues: film vs. digital and the scarcity of commercially available satellite imagery.
Digital aerial sensors, which first made a big splash a couple of years ago, are now rapidly replacing film and some conference participants were wearing "Film is dead" buttons. Nevertheless, many people are still trying to figure out the new digital technology and many companies are loath to give up their large investments in film-based processes and equipment. Many in the business are still trying to decide whether and when to switch from the "tried and true" film-based methods, with which they are comfortable, to the new digital sensing technology.
I asked VX Services, a company that supports and builds the popular Vexcel VX image scanning equipment, how digital images compare to those taken on film and then scanned. They told me that in either case the quality of the final product depends on so many steps and processes that it is impossible to generalize and say that one technology always gives better results than the other one. However, digital imaging is faster and therefore more appropriate for time-sensitive applications, such as fire monitoring or targeting ordnance. Film, on the other hand, is very good for long-term storage because it is a very dense and stable medium and a well-understood technology.
One company that has put a lot of emphasis on manipulating and integrating large images is Seattle-based LizardTech a provider of software solutions that facilitate the management and distribution of digital content. According to its vice president for global sales, Brian Soliday, the company's GeoExpress product is aimed at those who need to compress and manipulate very large images. Version 5.0, released in January, also allows users to re-project multiple TIFs on the fly and encodes at 500:1 areas with very uniform ground coverage, such as water. Version 5.0 also enables JPEG 2000 image compression and allows users to mosaic images with different resolutions. Working closely with the NGA, LizardTech has configured GeoExpress JPEG 2000 to encode images using pre-defined profiles EPJE, for small areas, and NPJE, for large areas that ensure compliance with Department of Defense image standards.
At the GITA meeting in Denver, LizardTech announced that it is working with Oracle to extend the Oracle Spatial 10g GeoRaster architecture to integrate native MrSID technology. The buzz from that announcement generated extra traffic at its booth at ASPRS. According to Soliday, within a couple of days of the announcement already half-a-dozen sites had requested to be beta sites. Having moved away from geospatial technology in August of 2003, when it was purchased by Celartem Technology, Inc., LizardTech is now again fully committed to the geospatial marketplace, "for the long term," Soliday told me.
Carlos Domingo, president and CEO of Celartem, Inc., LizardTech's parent company, added that integrating LizardTech's native MrSID wavelet technology in Oracle Spatial 10g reduces storage costs, by reducing database size from 20 to 30 times; improves performance, by expediting the loading of existing MrSID data into Oracle Spatial 10g; and integrates raster, vector, and relational data into a single geospatial data repository.
(Celartem Technology announced on Tuesday that it would merge LizardTech and its two other U.S. holdings, Extensis, Inc. and Celartem, Inc. Both Extensis and LizardTech will retain their employees, offices and corporate brand but will operate under the Celartem, Inc. holding company.)
I asked Karen Schuckman, the new president of ASPRS, about the "data gap" that commercial consumers of satellite imagery are increasingly facing now that the U.S. government has procured purchase rights to the majority of the images from commercial satellites. The large initial investments and long lead times required to launch satellites, she told me, make satellite imagery technology less responsive to changing imaging needs than aerial imaging and the United States "has been challenged coming up with a model for funding space-borne observation systems and for that reason we are increasingly relying on systems developed by other countries."
One company that would be glad to fill this gap is ImageSat International, according to Karen Gold Anisfeld, its vice president for corporate communications. She told me that her company "provides countries with a national, high-resolution imaging capability." Due to demand, the company is building a new satellite, which it plans to launch sometime between the Paris Air Show, in June, and the Singapore Air Show, in February of next year. Gold Anisfeld also told me that, to her knowledge, her company's business model is unique in this field because, by building very small satellites, it was able to keep production and launch costs sufficiently low as not to require any governmental support and be an entirely commercial operation.
On Thursday morning, Karen Schuckman delivered her first speech as ASPRS president to an audience of about 300 people. After recalling her dread of public speaking as a college student in the early 1970s, Schuckman launched into a passionate talk on the key requirements for leadership (among them, "the ability … to make each individual feel more capable"); the new role of women in the organization ("One can't deny that we are at a significant historical moment, having three consecutive women officers, when there were only three in the entire 71-year prior history of the organization."); the state of ASPRS ("We have nearly $1 million in reserve funds and an operating budget that consistently produces positive cash flow. We own our own building outright."); and what drives its members: "We all care about imagery and maps because we really care about something deeper, something that is more common to all human beings, not just photogrammetrists and remote sensing and mapping scientists."
In concluding, she cited Joseph Campbell's fascination with pictures from space of our planet, which he called the "fragile blue sphere". This reminded me of Carl Sagan's expression, "pale blue dot", and was a good segway to the next speaker, ESRI president Jack Dangermond, who repeatedly referred to Earth as a "blue marble."
Dangermond, very inspiring as usual, outlined his vision of GIS as a powerful tool to help resolve the complex challenges of our crowded world from globalization to armed conflict, from environmental change to economic development. He described GIS as a technique to integrate not just data but also "workflows," said that GIS is becoming "a new language," and argued that it can help humanity "build a common understanding." Focusing then on the trends that are currently driving the development of GIS, he identified four: the growing number of geographic measurements, due in part to the availability of new sensors; the growing integration of GIS with other technologies; the increasingly distributed and networked nature of GIS; and the emergence of GIS portals.
While the old "mantra of GIS," according to Dangermond, has been "I'll share my data," the new one, he opined, will be "I'll share my data models." As an example, he pointed out that data models originally developed by hydrologists are now being used by urban planners. "GIS networks," he predicted, "will allow us to connect and integrate distributed GIS resources, making virtual collaborations possible" and leading to "a kind of global GIS." This global integration, he cautioned, will not be perfect for example, we will still have to deal with images at different resolutions and different classification techniques and the end result will be analogous to a library, not to an encyclopedia. However, he concluded, the role of geospatial professionals will remain the same: understanding user needs, providing data services, supporting applications, managing organizations, and supporting the technical infrastructure.
I asked Dangermond whether he saw any tension between open standards and proprietary software development. His answer was simple and forceful: "If you are not 'open' you will not last. Evolution will take care of it."