Specialized Capabilities Put San Diego on the Geospatial Map

6/16/09Follow @bvbigelow

Yash Talreja says most people don’t know that cell phones were around for 30 years before they became affordable, useful, and prevalent devices for ordinary consumers. Now he says the same thing is happening with geographic information systems, or GIS. “For 30 years, it was a very specialized area,” Talreja says. “It was used by the very few.”

Nowadays, however, a confluence of forces is making GIS technology far more powerful, appealing, and pervasive—and San Diego’s resident expertise in software development and related technologies is putting the city near the center of the GIS development map. As a result, the San Diego Software Industry Council is organizing a GIS interest group to focus on various aspects of geospatial information processing, including geo-coding, location-based services, analysis, and visualization. Talreja, who is the group’s designated chair, says the combination of mapping technology, precise global positioning satellite technology, and the Internet with its search engine capabilities has made GIS one of the industry’s hottest sectors in the past two or three years.

Finding something on Google Maps is one thing, Talreja says. But the problem becomes more interesting when you get hungry while driving around, and the map interface on your phone or GPS device identifies and locates five restaurants within a six-block radius. Talreja says the spread of such location-based services means “The time will soon come when you’re gas tank indicator light comes up, and the map shows you where the nearest gas station is located.”

“There is a massive amount of data lying around that is related to a spot on the map, (environmental, traffic, health),” Bob Slapin, executive director of the software industry council, tells me by e-mail. “This data is often in different silos and in most cases making sense of it requires running around, finding it and mapping it somehow. The data is often structured and unstructured,” meaning software with a certain versatility is required to process it.

Slapin says he’s involved with EcoLayers, a San Diego GIS company developing interesting applications for watershed management. “This may sound boring but there is a realization that the control of water quality has a significant impact on the available water resources. Present management of this data is a nightmare.”

While San Diego’s software industry has about 10 active special interest groups (Slapin says, “we call them BIGS, Business Interest Groups”), there seems to be a special regional strength in geospatial systems. “We noticed a number of companies were working in the area,” Talreja says. “The startups and so forth are starting to increase.” Just from counting responses to an e-mail blast the software industry council sent last week, “there are easily 40 to 50 in the area,” Talreja says. (The GIS steering committee plans to hold its inaugural meeting at UC San Diego’s Computer Science and Engineering building at 6 p.m. Thursday, June 18)

One explanation could be the legacy expertise of the U.S. Navy in satellite-based global positioning technologies, as well as the development of location-based services for wireless devices at San Diego-based Qualcomm and other companies. ESRI, a world leader in GIS modeling and mapping software and technology is about a 2-hour drive up Interstate 15 in Redlands, CA. ESRI holds its international user conference annually in San Diego, with more than 14,000 people in attendance last year.

Local academic expertise also emerged in 2007, when researchers at San Diego State University’s Visualization Center led an effort to provide detailed, real-time images and data about the out-of-control wildfires raging through San Diego neighborhoods. The visualization center was established within SDSU’s Department of Geological Sciences, which has become increasingly proficient at collecting real-time information about natural disasters, using GIS technologies to combine the data, and making it available to the public over the Internet.

“GIS is gaining strength because it visualizes complex data and allows people to grasp ideas quickly,” Slapin says. “Just think of the traffic maps of [the] live freeway movement. It will become important in agriculture, pollution monitoring and fields we have not thought of yet. The big trick with all this stuff is how you get the diverse data sets into one useable data structure for display…The heavy lifting is done somewhere in the cloud.”

Talreja acknowledges that there are more GIS-related businesses in Silicon Valley than in San Diego. But he contends that the stage has been set for the same sort of transformation that occurred when cell phones became a ubiquitous and must-have consumer device. “This is definitely an area where we could be—if not No. 1, then at least No. 2.” Talreja says.

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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