Thursday, September 17, 2009

Shakespeare on GeoDesign

I've been trying to figure out why ESRI is suddenly trying to make such a big deal of "GeoDesign" - this announcement talks about introducing "the first generation of geodesign concepts, technologies, and tools". But people have been doing design in GIS for decades - the first release of Smallworld in 1991 was really all about design, with features like version management to enable you to analyze multiple alternative designs, etc etc. In the 1980s IBM GFIS was heavily used for design applications. I've come to the conclusion that maybe they've been trying to think of something they can say that they do which those pesky neogeographers don't do (yet!), and trying to present design as something new and cool is their attempt to do this. Anyone else have any theories? It all just seems a bit odd to me.

Anyway, I was browsing a little Shakespeare in preparation for my talks in Stratford upon Avon next week, as you do, and discovered that actually GeoDesign is even older than this. It goes back to the 16th century at least - here is a surprisingly detailed description of the design and construction process from Lord Bardolph in King Henry IV, Part 2 (maybe there's a reason why this wasn't one of his greatest hits!):
"... When we mean to build,
We first survey the plot, then draw the model;
And when we see the figure of the house,
Then we must rate the cost of the erection;
Which if we find outweighs ability,
What do we then but draw anew the model
In fewer offices, or at least desist
To build at all? Much more, in this great work,
Which is almost to pluck a kingdom down
And set another up, should we survey
The plot of situation and the model,
Consent upon a sure foundation,
Question surveyors, know our own estate,
How able such a work to undergo,
To weigh against his opposite; or else
We fortify in paper and in figures,
Using the names of men instead of men;
Like one that draws the model of a house
Beyond his power to build it; who, half through,
Gives o'er and leaves his part-created cost
A naked subject to the weeping clouds
And waste for churlish winter's tyranny."
(First posted in the comments on a previous post, but I decided it deserved its own entry!)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Google PowerMeter accidentally wipes out small industry on the way to changing the world??

I spent the last few days at the Autovation conference in Denver, which is focused on Smart Metering and the Smart Grid, an area that I am becoming increasingly interested in and one where Enspiria is doing a lot of work (where I work part time as Chief Technology Advisor). It was a very interesting conference - there is certainly lots of activity and energy in the space, especially since the stimulus bill committed $4.3bn to Smart Grid projects - and utilities need to match this funding, so close to $9bn will be spent over the next couple of years. That's a large enough sum to even interest the likes of Google and Microsoft in electric utility applications, something they haven't been into previously.

So it was interesting that the closing speaker at the conference was Ed Hu from Google (who is incidentally a former astronaut, who has spent six months on the space station!). He is responsible for their PowerMeter initiative. This was announced earlier this year and I had previously skimmed articles on it, but have to admit that I hadn't grasped the full significance of it until Ed's talk yesterday. You can see a short description of what it's all about in this one minute video:

In summary, it lets you see detailed information about your home's power consumption, enabling you to change your behavior to reduce consumption. Ed draws an analogy with the fuel consumption readout in a Toyota Prius, which encourages you to modify your driving style to maximize your fuel consumption (I can vouch for this). He says that in their trials so far, people using PowerMeter have typically got anywhere from 5-15% savings on their electricity bill. As I talked about in my previous Smart Grid video, one reason for having smart meters is to enable customers to have access to this type of information, in order to encourage them to change their behavior and reduce electricity consumption. This has various benefits including reduction in carbon emissions. Usage data for Google PowerMeter can be obtained either via your local utility, if they have installed smart meters and choose to offer the Google service (which requires them to interface their Meter Data Management System, MDMS, to Google), or alternatively you will be able to buy devices to install in your home and read consumption directly. Ed said that if they could get the same level of usage reductions as they got in their pilot, from 6 million users, this would be equivalent to the reduction in carbon emissions due to all the hybrid cars currently on the road.

This initiative is being run by, the philanthropic arm of Google, and the system is offered free to both consumers and utilities (and will continue to be free, Ed said). He also said that he'd been told personally by the CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, that the aim of the project was "to change the world".

I'm excited in many ways to see Google getting involved - certainly they understand how to build applications to engage consumers, and this is not something that electric utilities generally have expertise in. And having Google involved certainly could significantly accelerate the development of this aspect of the Smart Grid. However, it's potentially very disruptive for a number of existing companies in this space, who are trying to do much the same thing. Companies like Greenbox and Tendril seem to have strong overlap with what Google is doing here. In this story at earth2tech shortly after the initial announcement of PowerMeter, both try to put a somewhat positive spin on Google getting involved in the space, but it will be hard for them or others to compete with the core Google offering, especially since it is going to be free. Perhaps they can find niches that are complementary to what Google is doing, but they and other companies in this space seem in a somewhat precarious position to me.

The one other player in this space that I haven't mentioned, who are probably in a stronger position to compete with Google, is Microsoft, who have a relatively similar offering called Microsoft Hohm. Earth2tech compares the two. They say that Microsoft intends to charge utilities for their offering eventually - and also says that Microsoft intends to move into the space of controlling devices too. Someone at Autovation asked Ed if Google was planning to move into control of devices too, in addition to the data display they are doing now, and he indicated that this was very likely - though he said they wanted to focus on getting the display part right first. While he wasn't specific, if they did provide the ability to control devices for the consumer it is a logical step to provide that to the utility too, which gets them into the whole market area called Demand Response, potentially overlapping even more with existing companies.

After seeing all the disruption that Google and Microsoft have brought to the geospatial industry, it is interesting to see them moving aggressively into the consumer-related aspects of the Smart Grid. Google providing completely free enterprise solutions through its philanthropic arm is in some ways commendable and in other ways concerning (in terms of the ability of others to provide competition, and the risk that they could just wipe out multiple companies). One of the most common questions web entrepreneurs get asked when presenting to investors is "what if Google decides to do what you're doing?", and it seems as though people will need to be asking that question of companies in ever more diverse fields! It will be very interesting to see how all this develops over the next year or two, and how the existing companies in the space respond.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Looking forward to the AGI GeoCommunity conference

I'm very much looking forward to the AGI GeoCommunity conference which is coming up in Stratford upon Avon in a couple of weeks. Apart from Stratford being the birthplace of Shakespeare and a great place to visit, it's also very close to Leamington Spa where I used to live when I worked at IBM UK many years ago, so it will be a chance for me to catch up with old friends. It will also be the first time I've presented at a major UK conference since moving to the US 16 years ago, so I'm looking forward to talking in my homeland!

More importantly, from a general rather than a personal perspective it looks as though it will be a really interesting and fun event. I think Steven Feldman has done a great job introducing some new ideas this year, including the addition of a strong neogeography/geoweb element which really hasn't been there in previous years (see Ed Parsons' thoughts on this year and last). There will be a really strong geoweb track organized by Chris Osborne, founder of #geomob. And Andrew Turner and myself are giving the opening keynote talks - I know that mine will include a strong "neo" element, and since Andrew's is titled "How neogeography killed GIS", I'm guessing that his just might too :). I think that some of the most interesting conferences I've been to recently have been those that combine both traditional GIS and "neogeo" elements - like GeoWeb in Vancouver and, on a smaller scale, the WhereCamp5280 event we held recently in Denver. So I'm hoping that we'll get a lot of interesting discussion about how to combine the old and new geo worlds. Chris is also offering discounted day passes on his blog, in case you need any further incentive to attend!

There is going to be a "soapbox" event with lightning "Ignite" style talks on contentious topics, with a beer-fueled crowd, which sounds like a lot of fun. To get in the spirit of things I have submitted a talk called "The grass is always greener ... in defence of the Ordnance Survey" (for those not familiar with the UK national mapping agency, they tend to be a favorite punchbag for everyone in the UK geo industry ...)

Ordnance Survey

So I'm slightly concerned that my talk may look like the famous "Rawhide" scene from the Blues Brothers - I hope they have the wire fence in place to protect the speakers :) !!

The conference party has a "black and white" theme and I think I have a prize-winning outfit lined up for that (actually I'm not sure if there are prizes or not, but I may try to wangle a bottle of Lagavulin out of Mr Feldman).

Ordnance Survey

So all in all I'm looking forward to what should be a really fun and interesting event ... I guess I'd better get working on wrapping those presentations up!