Notes from the NYS GeoSpatial Summit 2010

Last week I attended the New York State GeoSpatial Summit — along with about 140 others and a half dozen terrific speakers — in Cooperstown, NY.  It was the 5th annual summit, and it was a great event.  As Adena Schutzberg from Directions Magazine noted about the 2008 summit, it’s “a national level conference tracking big [geospatial] issues.”  The notes below are just my take on the event; hopefully other attendees will chime in with comments and observations.

The summit is billed as

a unique forum intended to bring together the best in the geospatial industry, to discuss the latest events shaping the industry and engage geospatial professionals in New York in frank and open dialogs on a wide range of topics.

Though the event didn’t have an explicit theme, I think one developed out of the presentations.  From my view, it had to do with mapping based on smaller and smaller spatial units.  As Stu Rich of PenBay Media noted (I’m paraphrasing), we’ve done a pretty good job of creating digital data sets representing land mass and outdoor geography, but what about what’s inside — building interiors, where we spend most of our time, where we’ve made substantial personal and public investments, and where much of our nation’s energy is consumed.  Stu’s presentation began at the proverbial 30,000 foot level, giving the audience a good overview of urban development and future possibilities.  And then he zoomed right in to the building level, providing a compelling set of statistics about the importance of this micro-level of spatial visualization and analysis.

Nicholas Roy from MIT gave an amazing presentation on “micro-aerial” gadgets guided by GPS and environmental sensors that buzz around hallways and office spaces to generate 2D & 3D maps of those spaces.  This literally lifts earlier robotic GIS efforts off the ground.  I especially liked this video that Nicholas played, with the flyby thingy (my term 😉 ) mapping the clutter in and around his office desk (see this and other videos from MIT’s Robust Robotics Group website):

Even when the topic wasn’t mapping interiors, the issue still factored in. For example, Ted Morgan of Skyhook Wireless gave a great presentation on the changing consumer wireless environment and the way location has become so central to that industry. But Stu Rich insightfully noted that while Skyhook’s SpotRank product (see below) is impressive, it only shows outdoor population, limited by the reliance on GPS to determine a smartphone’s location.

Ted’s presentation included some interesting tidbits (interesting to me, anyway):

  • Skyhook processes more than 300 million location requests daily (anytime someone checks their location via a smartphone, for example)
  • They launched SpotRank in March in conjunction with SimpleGeo.  SpotRank is basically a “heat map”, as it were, of real-time densities of wifi users.
  • Skyhook’s data is “self-healing” – when someone checks their location, or when you install a new wifi router in your home, you also pick up nearby wifi connections.  Info about these other wifi hotspots are sent back to Skyhook along with your location info.

Below is a video of Ted’s presentation at Where 2.0 2010, which includes several of the same topics and slides that he covered at the GeoSpatial Summit:

And of course, data makes this all possible, and any good geospatial conference needs a good discussion of data issues.  James Fee was the closing speaker, riffing on lots of these concerns as only he can.  Among other things, he gave a great blow by blow review of his FOIL battle with the city of Tempe, AZ.  It was a hilarious description of dealing with a local government that apparently just doesn’t get open data — but painful in that this is still all too often the reality at the local level.  But he also noted some shining spots in the open data arena: he gave a shout out to the New York State Senate for its open data initiatives, and pointed out that even local police and fire departments sometimes value the wisdom of the crowd for tracking down elusive situations (this was a reference to the recent “boom” mystery in Portland, OR — where some enterprising mappers created a Google Maps site showing crowdsourced info about who heard what and when, and the Portland PD and FD apparently relied on this map to help pinpoint the source of the explosion).

To round out the speakers, Jason Hyon of NASA focused on another current topic – climate change – and how new advances in remote sensing were being used to track the impact of global warming on our planet.

Unfortunately Steve Coast of OpenStreetMap wasn’t able to attend.  It would’ve been great to have heard the latest on OSM.  James Fee touched on some of these points, but hopefully we’ll be able to see Steve next time.

Though the summit had some compelling themes, I think one downside of the event was that we didn’t have enough time to explore them beyond what the speakers presented.  There were mini-panel sessions after each couple of speakers, and mini-breaks throughout the day.  But still not enough time to really cogitate about the presentations, discuss them with the speakers and the other attendees, and offer feedback and responses.  There’s the reception the night before, but … that’s before the speakers have spoken.

I’ve attended other conferences that use the same format as the summit — one-day event, back-to-back presentatons, everyone in the same room — and the summit pulls it off well compared to the others (the summit’s topics were interesting enough to keep us attentive throughout the day and the speakers were thoroughly engaging).  But something with more back-and-forth, more interaction might be better.  Perhaps an unconference format?

The summit’s organizers emphasize how this event is different from – and how it supplements – the NYS GIS Conference in the fall (the summit scans the big issues, the GIS conference provides more technical, how-to presentations and workshops). Those are good selling points. But I think New York could benefit from more unconferences.  Several have been held in New York City (in fields outside the geospatial arena) and they’re promising.  But I think the audience is key.  Seems to me that most of the attendees at the New York State summit and GIS conference work in relatively traditional GIS positions.  The unconferences tend to be more oriented toward hackers and neogeographer types, if I can be stereotypical about it.  But in New York and elsewhere, the convential and unconventional geography crowds have much to offer each other, so hopefully we’ll figure out a way of facilitating more crossover between them.

The conference venue — the historic Otesaga Hotel — was majestic (and apparently haunted — the stand-in speaker for Steve Coast gave some local flavor about the “ghosts of Cooperstown“).  And the locale was great for anyone who likes baseball and appreciates finding little gems of towns in upstate New York.  Cooperstown is beautiful, and the Tuesday night reception was held in the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Plaque Gallery.  We were fed delicious buffet food, great beers from local Belgian-style breweries, and networked while baseball legends looked on around us.

Alas, the conference organizers aren’t posting the speakers’ presentations, so for now my notes and the modest Twitter feed (#nysgs10 or #nysgeospatial) will have to suffice, or you can contact the speakers directly.  Looking forward to next year!