Jonathan Neufeld is the CEO of TECTERRA, helping companies develop and commercialize geospatial technology. They are a government-funded nonprofit based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. They work with companies that are willing to take a risk of building something new that they otherwise might not have been able to do; develop new technology, and get it out into the market.
Alberta has been a leader in geospatial for quite some time. The University of Calgary was one of the first places to have a department of geomatics engineering, and for a long time, it was one of only two in Canada to offer that. Those numbers have since grown, obviously. TECTERRA was set up because geomatics was a recognized area in which Alberta could be a leader. It is also an area of strategic importance when looking at both the resource sector and the growing tech economy as a whole.
We're interested in pushing the boundaries of science and technology, but staying grounded. Solving genuine problems of actual customers who pay money for that solution. The best business cases are those companies that know exactly who their customer is and what problem their customers need solving. This is key.
If you don't know what you're trying to accomplish, it becomes impossible to sell it to anyone. On top of the business case, we're looking for innovation, particularly within geomatics. The more novel it is, the more interesting it is. If it's pushing boundaries of what's possible today, it's more likely to be a better opportunity.
Truly innovative ideas are almost indistinguishable from the crazy ones. The solution in the early phases often seems completely unrealistic. It might not solve the problem. It might be expensive. It might be an entirely different approach than ever known before. But over time you'll want to see that these things compete on a different vector, they solve problems in unique ways, and create new market opportunities.
Sometimes an idea is just bad, or it's just a technology looking for a problem. Those are easy to identify because they have the technology fully fleshed out, and they think they know who they will sell it to. At the same time, it's clear that the potential customer won't pay money for that solution. This all becomes obvious as you dig into who the company is working with and what the specific problem is.
Some ideas are too complex, yet the problem they solve is small. Someone creates a complex piece of machinery or technology to try to solve a simple problem, and it doesn't make business sense.
Some companies misrepresent the market and think they'll make $500 million within five years with their technology. It's not realistic to go after a small market and capture that much value in such a short time. It's entirely out of the ballpark, and they need to be realistic about how much money they can make off their product.
Companies are wanting to solve problems. They don't see it from a geospatial point of view, no. For technology providers and their customer's operational efficiency, reducing risks, increasing safety, and performance is what they're interested in. It's business objectives that drive their technology and not what's happening behind the scenes and how their problems are solved. It just happens that geospatial is the best way to solve those problems.
Every time you're selling something, you're trying to help a person with a problem. You should try to connect to them on a human level. It's worth paying attention to the specific issues and outcomes that the other person is driving towards. Only then will you be able to communicate with them how you can attach and solve that problem for them.
Think of a company that's all about helping customers with efficiency. This company might help their automobile client through indoor location technology at a super precise level to be more efficient in their assembly lines. Does the auto manufacturer care about how the device works or the technology behind it? Probably not. They care that it gives them an X percent increase in their throughput and their quality. That's what they're after.
The average person doesn't know which processor is in their smartphone. They just want the phone to boot up quickly and provide fast access to their images and messages. Geospatial professionals should think about who is on the other end of their device, system, or process. What do they need out of it?
Does your client really need more maps? They are probably not interested in sifting through several hard drives of pictures. What they want to know is how busy are the parking lots, what the crops look like this year, or if enemies are moving tanks into a position that they need to be aware of.
People open up a map to know how close a restaurant is and how they can get there quickly. Everyone loves a good map, but does yours answer specific problems?
Let's move geospatial up the value chain and provide insight, detailed knowledge, and high-level technical background to make those solutions possible. There's a lot of value in making things easy for people. To do it with simplicity is powerful.
It's tricky to understand the notion between something being broken and needing to be fixed and something being an opportunity.
In the past, companies sent people on foot or in a car to take meter readings. Now they send an airplane and collect the same information. The system before was working fine, and the meters were read. But at what cost? With an aircraft, you can collect data safely and remarkably cost-effectively. That's an example where something wasn't broken, per se, but there was a lot of room to improve it. Someone at that company demonstrated to the executives that the alternative system saves money, enhances safety, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. An easy sell, wouldn't you say?
Privacy is an area for innovation as more and more people are understanding the implications of it.
We are all carrying around pocket computers with an internet connection, cameras, and a GPS chip activated. We're entering an interesting time of pervasive mapping with everyone having access to location information and contributing that back into the hole.
Tim Hortons has been in the news lately, all for the wrong reasons. Their app was allegedly pinging information on customers' locations even when it wasn't turned on. It recorded them going into competitors' stores and fed the information back to the brand. Most people innocently enable location so they can find their nearest favorite store and haven't thought about the consequences of that action until now. The tracking on the app is apparently now disabled, and the company is being investigated by watchdogs, and we await the outcome.
OpenSteetMap blew things open and showed that the community is willing to contribute information to the map. What's next? Probably a one-to-one scale map; hyper-accurate knowledge and information of location.
We now live in an age where almost everything is customizable and can be adapted to our individuality. Google is so good because it knows everything about you and probably has a decade of email on you. It knows what you like and look for, and the search results can perfectly be tailored to what it thinks you want. Spatially, now we also have the power to contribute data to the map and change what we see on a digital map.
In previous eras, maps were physical documents. If you went hiking and you took a one-to-one map with you, where would you even put it? It wouldn't be helpful.
In the digital realm, we capture the information from smartphones, from IoT devices, intelligent cars driving around, satellites, and building sensors. We put these into place and have a perfectly clear picture of the world in its digital format—this is your digital one-to-one map.
I use an app called Strava for cyclists and runners for tracking my physical activities. It's interesting to look at a Strava activity layer. If you look at a popular park in Calgary called North Glenmore on the map, you can see the trails, the pathways, and the roads that hikers and bikers use.
If you look even closer, there's a perfect oblong oval shape out in the middle of the water. And that's not something you would get from the physical geography. It's not a hill, valley, or pavement. People train for rowing there. They're out there rowing around, getting their exercise, and tracking that through the Strava app. That's a social psychological layer to the map representing not only what something is, buthow it is.
Until now, we were mostly interested in the physical geography of things, but in the digital and the one-to-one map era, we begin to layer on how we use spaces, and eventually, that will even get us to why we use spaces.
The beauty of technology and innovation is that you can never be sure of everything that will be solved with that technology or information. Often, data and layers lead to new outcomes that we couldn't have imagined.
Let's think about active transportation. As a cyclist, I would love to see more bike lanes through my city. If we knew accurately when and how pedestrians and cyclists use the space, we could adjust the way we've laid out our cities. What trips are people taking? One kilometer? Five or twenty? Can we readjust housing suburbs and build them up with other types of amenities instead of standing by themselves?
How is the history of a place coming into effect in the modern-day era? How can we reflect deeper on the Black Lives Matter protests? How are the monuments, places, and things that happened in the past affecting our current lives? How do we honor that? How do we move on from that and understand what we can do to reshape people's lives?
Exactly. Understanding not only where you are and what you're doing there, but why? Why do you go walking in the evening, and how does that impact the quality of your life? How can others cycle to work like you do, access markets, and what does this mean for people who live in your communities and cities? Giving things context and understanding society geospatially will lead to many positive outcomes.
There is a flip side to all this, of course. If we transport ourselves into a world where we have pervasive geospatial understanding, does that mean every time you leave your kitchen and walk to your bathroom, someone knows about it? How do we respect people's privacy while still desiring to understand the question of why? Many people are finding this subject fascinating, and it seems you cannot really anonymize location-based information. The New York Times reported in 2019 that they could track individual cell phones from the Pentagon back to the residence of individual employees. If you're the only person who works in your office and lives in your house, someone can connect the obvious privacy dots quickly.
I don't have the answer to the privacy question, but as we move forward to this era, we must absolutely debate the privacy issue from the beginning. Otherwise, if we avoid talking about it, the problems will overtake the benefits we might get.
The question of privacy is a tremendous avenue of opportunity for companies to exploit and launch themselves into. I don't have a specific problem or know who will pay for it, but it would be an exciting thing to explore. How can we protect people's privacy and rights while understanding our world at a deeper level?
Stop trying to sell geospatial and start understanding what people want. We should think more in the three to five-year timeframe and building for a positive future rather than hanging onto the past.
Think about the tools and the mentality we are bringing to what we do. If we keep building technologies, solutions, GIS departments, and academics in the way we've done in the past 50 years, we'll get another 50 years like we've just had. Let's think about what pervasive location intelligence can mean. Let's think about all the benefits miniaturized sensors, unmanned drones, and satellite technology has afforded us. We have an opportunity to build an incredible future with location understanding.
Every GIS professional should invest time in communication and understand what their bosses and clients are looking for. Then, lean onto the specialty you excel in. We all love Google Maps for everything it did for our industry to bring awareness to the public. But there are issues around accuracy, specificity, and data types. It's time to discern and communicate the top-line value that GIS is bringing to the client.
Have you been caught out by Timmy's location fiasco? How did you feel? Do you have any ideas on how the future of privacy should be governed and with what technology? I'm always interested to know your thoughts.
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Are you unhappy in your current GIS job, or feel stagnant in your development? Are you thinking that maybe you are not exploring your full professional potential in the geospatial field? If you are looking for a way to manage these feelings, while taking on very little startup risk, a geospatial side hustle may be the thing for you. If you are completely satisfied with your day-to-day work, that’s great! You will still benefit from keeping aware of market demand, and where the future industry opportunities may lie.