Ed Parsons, Geospatial Technologist, Google

Technology is increasingly becoming invisible, as it becomes a part of our daily lives and becomes ubiquitous. We think less about the devices that we carry around, be they laptops or phones, as it becomes a part of the fabric of our day-to-day lives. All of this has happened in the last 30 years or so, because we have been able to digitize a lot of what we do. Since this process has been relatively gradual, it’s been almost invisible — we haven’t really noticed it. The idea of me telling my phone to book a reservation in a restaurant in London, while I am in Monterey, California, feels like science fiction, but it’s practical. That only works because all these tasks are part of a process, part of industries that have been digitized.

Positively using automation

When it comes to Machine Learning, analysts call it geospatial datasets. So, you can look at the analyses of traffic patterns in a city over a period of time and can apply Machine Learning to spot patterns that emerge during the day. You might want to visualize that just to control the traffic lights differently. That’s a relatively organic process. You are looking at the development of algorithms and tools that analysts call ‘techniques’, which we might have developed using a human at one point of time. But we can now do it at scale.

So, in one sense, it’s just another technological development, and like all technologies, when it comes to their use, any technology can be put to good or bad use. I think you have to in some way extract the policy for social issues around the development, around the use of tools. AI and ML are broadly about automation. We are now applying automation to geospatial technology. This hasn’t happened much in the past because the digitization process hadn’t happened.

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Transparency, education must for data privacy

Data privacy is largely about transparency and education. It’s about making it clear when information is gathered about an individual, what that information is going to be used for, and giving control to that individual about whether that information is used or not. Much of the focus at the moment is around control —particularly the idea of information being collected by one organization and then being shared with another. The focus should be around people.

The thing that GDPR has done is that it has put in place frameworks, best practices and knowledge about transparency, giving people control and access to their information. Sometimes there are broader benefits of broadly showing information. For instance, If I could share medical information about how a population is being immunized, the administration can then make better decisions about where to put resources if there is a potential epidemic. But without education and transparency, we can’t really have these discussions.

Better accessibility to bridge digital divide

There is clearly an issue in terms of technology accessibility. There is actually a lot of work going on to try and make access to Internet more broadly available. But on the flip side, a lot of innovation around products and services are actually coming from those parts of the world that have less access and have been forced to come up with more innovative solutions. I think there are broad infrastructure problems that need resolution.

It’s no longer about what your suburban family in California needs and wants. It’s a much more diverse user community now. And if you are developing products and services, you have to recognize that broader community. Look at something like ride sharing applications. A lot of us in the West worry about the big companies that are potentially striving for world domination in this space, but actually, lots of very successful smaller companies focused at particular needs in countries are doing really well. It’s that local knowledge and focus that is making them successful.

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Geography, a horizontal activity

I think geography has been a relatively horizontal activity. There is a little bit of geography in all disciplines and professions. When we digitize the world of information, we end up recognizing geospatial data and technology. You can simply encapsulate the functionality that you need in your restaurant application, or in your model of developing a future housing project. You can just grab the piece of geospatial technology that you need, stick it into what you are doing and not worry too much about it.

There will always be sophisticated and complex user demands, but the vast majority of user demands are relatively simple. They want to know where something is, where something else is and potentially connecting the two. Not everyone who uses geospatial technology needs to be a geologist or geographer by training.

Common thread in functionality

Because of the horizontal nature of the industry, a little bit of geospatial technology is encapsulated in almost all other processes. That’s been a huge growth area. Often, it will be the case that within those industries, they won’t necessarily recognize that they are using geospatial technology. At Google, we reflect that a lot. Lots of Google products and services use a little part of Google Maps.

I sometimes worry about the geospatial industry being too introspective. We are always looking at ourselves and worrying about pushing harder and having more people to love us for what we do. But what has happened in the last 20 years is a great success story. Lots of other disciplines and problems in the world are being solved through the application of geospatial technology, because we have now made it accessible enough that they can go, pick it up and run with it.

Also Read: GIS as intelligent nervous system for the planet

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