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Web-enabled Geography, No Longer Just a Dream


At this year's Esri International User Conference, a key theme consistently percolated up amidst the din of exhibitions, technical sessions, and networking events:  web-based geography.  And you might be thinking, “We've already heard the promise of so-called web-based technology that saves time and money and improves organizational efficiency—and, in practice, the dream never became reality.”  But there's a different quality about the web-enablement discussions these days.  Could it be that technology has finally caught up with the hype?

A noticeable dynamic that isdriving interest in web-enabled geographic solutions relates to the limitationsinherent to desktop and traditional server-based computing environments.  The fire hose of data originating from remotesensing platforms and other geospatial data collection systems is overwhelminglocalized computing implementations and making the problems of data storage,cataloguing, and dissemination more acute. Although computer processing power has come a long way, desktop and workgroup-classserver hardware is struggling to keep pace with the volumes of data associatedwith the spatial and spectral analysis requirements of a modern decisionsupport system.  And from an IT infrastructurestandpoint, even smaller organizations are eschewing the overhead of in-househardware and software management in favor of software-as-a-service and hostedtechnology solutions.  

Organizations are investing incloud-based computing implementations to address the data processing andstorage limitations inherent to traditional computing architectures.  When timely decisions are paramount,federated data and scalable processing power is required.  Companies crunching data for businessintelligence and market analytics, like operators with stakes on financialexchanges for instance, haven't hesitated to invest in web-enabled anddistributing computing technology. Organizations needing to quickly solve complex problems over broad areasusing big geospatial data are following suit; geographic applications canbenefit from web-enabled technology that facilitates linking and disseminatinginformation quickly.

Today's promise of web-basedgeography is made viable by the maturation of enabling technology.  For example, Esri's ArcGIS online platform isquickly becoming a clearinghouse for foundational map and imagery products thatnearly cover the entire globe.  Theaddition of analytics capabilities to this platform provides a model for whatweb-enabled geography can be:  aweb-based solution that allows geographic analysis to be conducted using dataand processing services that reside in the cloud.  The management of geospatial data and stewardshipof analytical tradecraft is centralized; software and hardware considerationsfor an organization are mitigated; and access to information is available toconsumers on devices of any type. 

Web-based geospatial analysis systems won't supplant desktop applications any time soon.  But, when considered as a complementary technology, it may finally be a time and money-saving, process-efficient dream come true.