New Ottawa conference putting geospatial tech on the map


A new tech conference coming to Ottawa next month is looking to bring together government, industry and academia to explore the opportunities in location-based technologies.

GeoIgnite, to be held June 18-19 at the Ottawa Conference and Event Centre, will gather industry players from satellite companies to autonomous vehicle developers to data analysts in one room to collaborate on tech and services based on geospatial data.

Once solely the domain of government intelligence agencies, geospatial tech now permeates aspects of everyday life from GPS navigation to weather monitoring.

“Geospatial has gone mainstream now,” says Jonathan Murphy, the organizer of GeoIgnite. “Everybody's using it: it's on your phone, in all the maps we use, a lot of the social media stuff, it's just embedded in there.”

Murphy runs GoGeomatics, an Ottawa-based media company that aims to connect geospatial firms in Canada. He’s teamed up with Invest Ottawa and tapped a number of sponsors in the location tech industry to put on the first iteration of GeoIgnite, which Murphy expects will bring in a modest 200 attendees in the first year. The event will include an exhibition space with room for 20-some companies.

Murphy says he already has high expectations for the conference, which he hopes will become an annual event. Similar events in Europe regularly draw crowds of more than 1,000, he says – a testament to the growing demand for geospatial tech.

“We know there's a lot of people doing interesting things these days as the science has moved ahead, but they're not talking to each other as much as they could because we don't have events like this,” he says of Canada’s geospatial community.

The value of location data

GeoIgnite has attendees lined up from numerous government departments such as Statistics Canada and Environment Canada, as well as Prashant Shukle, the director general of the Canada Centre for Mapping and Earth Observation.

Murphy’s also tapped Keith Masback, who served as CEO of the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation for about a decade, as a keynote speaker.

After spending more than a dozen years with the U.S. Army, Masback was part of the group that originated the term “geospatial intelligence” back in the mid-’90s. He’s spent much of his career since then expounding on the value of the discipline, and believes geospatial technologies have never been more relevant.

Since the concept of geospatial first emerged some 25 years ago, the advent of smartphones, private satellites, drones, broadband networks and cloud-based storage has resulted in an explosion of potential applications for location data. Masback notes the interesting use case of UPS, which a decade and a half ago analyzed its delivery routes amid a spike in gas prices to save costs by virtually eliminating left turns.

“Their analytics showed that idling, waiting to turn left was less efficient than taking three rights,” Masback says.

While government agencies were largely at the forefront of geospatial when the discipline first emerged – they were the only ones that could really launch satellites at the time – private players have surged ahead in the domain as of late.

“The true technological advantage is being developed out of the competitive spirit of industry,” Masback says. “And it's rocketing past what government acquisition programs can manage.”

The future depends on geospatial

That shift hammers home the importance of a conference like GeoIgnite, Masback says. Governments need a forum to discuss the problems they’re facing so that academic and industry players can offer their existing solutions or, at the very least, head back to the office with a notebook full of ideas.

Cities looking to implement smart city applications will need to pay close attention to geospatial intelligence, Masback says. Autonomous vehicles, for example, are enabled solely through location-based technologies.

“They are rolling, integrated geospatial intelligence platforms,” says Masback.

Beyond the prestige of being on the cutting edge of technology, there’s an aspect of public good when it comes to geospatial applications too. Considering rural and remote communities, Masback says there are often delays in getting help to the scene of an emergency due to a lack of precise location data. He argues it’s a government’s duty to ensure first responders have access to the data they need to save a life.

“If they died because the ambulance didn't have the data to get to the right place, and was driving around looking for landmarks, I don't think any of us can accept that.”

“If they died because the ambulance didn't have the data to get to the right place, and was driving around looking for landmarks, I don't think any of us can accept that.”

Public servants hoping to implement geospatial applications in their departments should absolutely attend GeoIgnite, Masback says. Learn from peers how to make the argument for a drone in your department, he offers as an example, and you’ll be part of the incremental progress in making geospatial tech ubiquitous in the federal government.

“That's when magic happens ​– those discussions,” Masback says.

Ottawa's "Father of GIS"

Ottawa might be the perfect host for a geospatial conference, Murphy notes.

Roger Tomlinson, a Royal Air Force pilot largely considered to be the “father of geographic information systems,” settled in Ottawa, where he worked with the federal government and the aerial survey company Spartan Air Services in the 1960s. It was here in the capital that he conceptualized combining land mapping with emerging computer technologies, the origin of geospatial application.

“Ottawa is, in many ways, the home geospatial technologies,” Murphy says.