drone pilot industryThe New Precision – At Scale

September 22, 2021by helo-10

A dilemma confronts every decision-maker today, in business, government and across civil society: How do you solve challenges that are at once interconnected and complex, and yet demand real-time interventions at exactly the right time, at exactly the right scale, and at exactly the right place? Our problems – from climate to equity, from infrastructure to ecology, from pandemic to supply chains – are both global and local, both urgent and long-term.

To address these challenges, we need pinpoint precision at planetary scale. Such a thing is possible, but it isn’t simple.

It is a matter of both technology and mindset.

First, mindset. Scale has always been integral to systems thinking – understanding the full context of any phenomenon, being able to see how multiple inputs interact to produce it – and to recognize the interdependence of human-made systems with natural systems. Precision, on the other hand, has always been key to taking action – knowing what, when, how, and where to do something to achieve a desired outcome. These two fundamental dispositions have usually been opposed.

This is where the geographic approach comes in – a way of thinking and problem solving that integrates geographic information into how we understand and manage our world. It’s where foxes and hedgehogs – to borrow Isaiah Berlin’s famous trope about approaches to problem-solving – find common ground.

Second, technology. Just as we’ve witnessed with the Johns Hopkins’s COVID-19 tracker, one tool has always been key for humans to integrate scale and precision: the map. And because the world being mapped today is radically more interdependent and dynamic, it’s not surprising that geography and mapping are re-emerging as an important form of contextual intelligence in fields ranging from biology and sociology to urban planning; from commerce to construction; from clean energy, health and human services to transportation, education, and public safety. The geographic approach is becoming compelling not just to professional geographers but to executives, designers, policymakers, advocates, and entrepreneurs.

Indeed, a new generation of smart cartography is being made possible by the pervasive instrumentation of our environments, both natural and built, through remote sensing and the Internet of Things. These next-level maps and digital twins of a growing number of cities, ports, buildings and supply chains are being used to enable us not only to see the world much more quickly and accurately but also to intervene in real time.

We’re talking about the technology known as geographic information systems. GIS is transforming field after field because it is making possible decision-making of radically greater precision at unprecedented scale.

Consider the challenge of maintaining supply chains in an increasingly complex global economy, beset by disruptions that can be economic, political, and natural, all at once. Climate-related interruptions to the international flow of goods, for instance — a flow worth roughly $20 trillion — slow the delivery of food, medicine, and materials and can result in billions in economic loss. It may not be the so-called “butterfly effect,” but rising sea levels in Vietnam can have a direct bearing on the sale of AirPods or Nike shoes in Moscow or San Francisco.

With GIS, however, analysts can create smart maps that layer climate information, hazard data and satellite imagery on the regions and networks that comprise a business’s supply chain. The insight produced by such maps help business and community leaders make decisions to reinforce or relocate coastal facilities from areas where storms will increase, or to allocate more funds for floodplain management.

For example, the GIS-powered Seaport Simulator provides Canada’s third busiest port, the Port of Prince Rupert in British Columbia, with probabilities for a staggering number of possible climate and cargo-flow outcomes.

To manage a port, both precision and scale are essential. Due to the complex hydrodynamics and depending on the time of day, the water level varies – every inch determining whether a port remains operational. Meanwhile, cargo traveling from Asia to North America might have nine different ports to choose from, and a GIS-based analysis can illuminate which port will be more efficient and cost-effective. Prince Rupert’s digital twin captures overhead lidar imaging of the port’s buildings, roads, docks and rail lines, targeting climate projections to port operations on a facility-by-facility basis.

Across industry after industry and society after society, we are seeing the same kind of precision decision-making at scale, through the geographic approach.

Precision agriculture: On a modern farm, location-intelligent technology is everywhere: mobile devices combined with smart maps, sensors embedded in both equipment and fields, and pickers equipped with trackable smart devices so that the farm operations manager can see where they were when they picked that produce. That can help farm management isolate contamination issues, so food isn’t unnecessarily destroyed. It can help farmers identify their best produce – and repeat that success. They can measure everything from the global market’s financial, supply and demand status to the amounts and kinds of nutrients to put into the soil, how much water is required to maximize a crop, how much fertilizer and seed are needed and how much tillage is going on at an exact location – with a margin of error of a single foot.

Precision delivery: Grocery giant Kroger announced in May it would begin a pilot program to deliver groceries by drone from a store near its Cincinnati headquarters. It was sparked in part by recent FAA rule changes that permit small drones to fly above populated areas, allowing them to reach more destinations and increasing the likelihood of doorstep drop-offs in the US. This is enormously promising for consumers and for our economy – but it won’t be possible without GIS. With it, companies can track where an aircraft is, where exactly it needs to go, what might get in the way, and what to do if an obstacle sets it off course.

Precision conservation: This new field is redefining how land and sea conservation should be approached with smart maps, ensuring that conservation projects are implemented at the right place, the right time, and the right scale. For example, the National Water Model, run by NOAA and driven by approximately 7,000 observational measurements, hourly precipitation forecasts and landscape characteristics, estimates water flow on 2.7 million streams and reaches across the continental United States. And as complex as America’s inland water flows are, they are nothing compared to the ocean – on which the world’s fisheries (and the planet’s health) largely depend. Fortunately, the world’s first 3-D digital ocean map sorts global water masses into 37 distinct volumetric regions, known as Ecological Marine Units (EMUs), defined by the properties most likely to drive ecosystem health and recovery, including temperature, salinity, oxygen, and nutrient levels. 

Precision health: Fully 80 percent of human health outcomes are context driven. They are shaped by our physical environment (10 percent), our health behaviors (30 percent), and social and economic factors (40 percent). Only the remaining 20 percent is determined by a person’s genome and microbiome (the symbiotic organisms — including billions of bacteria and other microbes — that make up an individual human being) and the clinical care he or she receives. A person’s exposure to that context begins before birth and includes inputs from environmental and occupational sources, such as climate, metals and plastics, ozone, pollution, tobacco, pesticides, infection, stress, and socioeconomic factors. As the COVID-19 virus has taught us, the unique combinations of societal, environmental, and cultural characteristics of a given city, neighborhood or block are decisive in determining quality of life and health outcomes for the people in those communities. GIS is enabling medical and public health providers in every part of the world to analyze, diagnose and deliver precision care.

Precision telecommunications: Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited recently became the largest mobile network operator in India and the second largest in the world, reaching the milestone of 350 million customers less than three years after launching commercial operations. That’s scale. And it was built through precision – including the use of GIS to model and test the best sites to locate towers for optimum coverage. Jio operators use that same GIS technology to coordinate materials for just-in-time deliveries and to dispatch crews for network construction when and where they are needed.

Precision climate resilience: A pioneering public-private collaboration between telecom giant AT&T and the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory applied GIS to develop a climate analysis tool capable of identifying the areas of AT&T’s network most at risk from climate change in the US Southeast – all the way out to 2050. While most climate modeling of this kind works on 12-kilometer blocks, Argonne was able to enhance the focus down to hyperlocal, 200-meter blocks — the most detailed level of climate modeling available. Even within a mile or two, local topography, such as hills and valleys, affects coastal flooding and presents different levels of risk. With knowledge of those risks, a planning team can move the construction of a cell tower 200 meters south to an area less prone to floods or wind, or to the other side of a highway. The team can shore up existing facilities, knowing that one building may only need to be reinforced by sandbags, while at another location, batteries need to be elevated to avoid maximum flooding levels – all decisions with potentially huge economic implications.

The new precision is being achieved in domain after domain:

Precision emergency management assesses and predicts precise damage of floods, fires, hurricanes, and tornadoes for rapid effective response;

Precision equity identifies vulnerabilities, disparities, risks and opportunities, pinpointing where to focus limited resources;

Precision space exploration allows NASA in its ongoing Mars mission to map the planet’s terrain, geology, geography and mineralogy, combining all these layers of information to chart the mission with predictability and precision. A GIS-enabled digital twin of Mars is continuously updated in real time with scientific data being gathered by a research robot on the surface, guiding the deep exploration of the planet.

In pursuing precision at scale, we are following the lead of nature. For example, starlings, sometimes in the tens of millions, move simultaneously in perfect symmetrical patterns – as if they sensed one another and were making decisions instantaneously. The phenomenon is called murmuration. What is known so far from scientific study is that the starlings’ ability to self-organize at scale – making exact, coordinated shifts en masse, often in response to risk, uncertainty, or changes in their environment – is made possible by, and is an expression of, an intimate understanding of their geography. As one scientist put it, they move as “an intelligent cloud.”

The last year has reminded us that our economy, our society, and our species are part of something bigger, more holistic, and more powerful than ourselves. In the words of Andreas Weber, author of The Biology of Wonder: “A swarm of starlings does not have intelligence; it is intelligence. We (humans) are a swarm ourselves.”

Connectivity isn’t enough to deliver the necessary precision to make impactful decisions about complex issues. Data isn’t enough. Neither are business intelligence and even artificial intelligence, as powerful as the latter can be.

Only when we anchor these technologies in a geographic platform and mindset – one that is holistic, integrated, and inclusive – can we clearly see the impacts of our actions, intervene in our world with radically greater precision, and map a future that’s both prosperous and sustainable.

To learn more about how decision-makers are applying a geographic approach to how their organizations address today’s biggest challenges, visit esri.com/en-us/geospatial-thinking/overview

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