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Geo engineering data turns into gold

S. S. K. Banerjee

There is no such thing as disposing of infrastructure. Go to Rome and you can drive on the Via Apia, a 2000-year-old pavement. Infrastructure is cumulative; we don't remove utilities, harbours, buried sewers, etc. We add more, and more, and more. When infr A structure is physically destroyed, the scale of the demolition job is of the same magnitude as the initial construction job (consider the dam-removal programs being carried out in some parts of the world).
br> Creating the mother lode
As we keep adding infrastructure, we also accumulate data relating to the entire existing infrastructure. The investment associated with the accumulated information is enormous. It has represented, typically, over 80 percent of all GIS-related project cos ts. Even if Moore's law holds true, the doubling of computing power every 18 months pales when compared with the exploding volumes of the data we collect every year. To some extent, it is just that increasing computing power makes our data-collection poss ible, from mobile video capture, to high-resolution scanners, to satellite imagery. Space Imaging's one-meter-resolution satellite, now due next June, for example, will generate 40 megabytes of data per second, every second of every day.

Paralleling the growth of newly-captured data is digital information, previously private by nature, that is now becoming open and accessible. Many agencies and organizations have volumes of data on servers to which they had no practical way to provide any one access. Under those circumstances, there was little debate about who should have access to that data, simply because there was no technology to make it accessible.

The Internet is changing that. To publish this data on the Web does not require much work. The data exists already in digital form, maintained properly. Today, servers containing massive amounts of data can be reached by any authorized browser.

Mining the data
Given the theoretical availability of this information on the Internet, how practical is that form of access? Granted, data publishers provide CDs with hundreds of megabytes of data to you, and there is no way for the Internet to replicate the way CDs are distributed. And on the horizon are DVDs. But over the Internet, the question is usually stated in terms of raw bandwidth. With the bandwidth I have from my Bentley connection today, I can realistically download files as large as 20 or 40 MB (and I can continue to do my work with the download pro gressing in the background), but that does not allow me to replace the FedEx envelope containing a six-pack CD.

There will always be greater demands for bandwidth, and bandwidth will continue to improve. There are other factors that can change the way we work with remote data, and ease the bandwidth requirements:
  • Pertinence. Most users are interested in a small data set (either spatially located-"show me all of the buried pipes around that area,"-or pertinent to a specific theme-"show me all of the operating oil wells in this Province").
  • Persistence. Once the proper data has been located on a server, it can be copied to a local machine. But as soon as this happens, the copied data becomes outdated, and as time goes on, the value of the copy will decrease because of its age. It is theref ore better to keep a live link with the original data and leave the maintenance of the data outside of one's own workflow.
Both of these criteria require that the data be downloaded only for a session, rather than for the long term. Interestingly, the higher the pertinence, the smaller the data volume to transmit. If the query is well-expressed, then the "noise" can be kept t o a minimum and the bandwidth pressure is lowered.

The great data rush
Another special aspect of geoengineering data is the natural demand for access. Compare geoengineering with other sectors of engineering: A project for the design of a simple mechanical device could involve dozens of participants; a building or a plant will necessitate that hundreds of participants have access to the project data-but geoengineering data is of interest to millions of people and thousands of companies, for a variety of purposes.

Often, this information can be viewed as public. As a matter of fact, in many regions where this data was collected at the expense of the taxpayers, the data is legally owned by the taxpayers, and they have some right to it. In most cases, the disseminati on of this data represents a huge business opportunity. Many states in the US are already working with public and private partners to put public information online, with specified access rights and pricing policies.

Now, many will say that such a mountain of data is impossible to navigate from a browser (especially by non-professional or casual users). But anyone who has tried any of the dozens of geographically oriented sites knows that navigating tabular databases is vastly more difficult than panning and zooming on a map.

With both demand and supply of geoengineering information growing rapidly, and with the combination of raster and vector capabilities now available, the floodgates are opening. Be prepared for the geoengineering Web revolution.