Geospatial technologies

Once the purview of governments, the technology is now a part of everyday life…

It was a significant event in Mississippi's economic history.

In 1964 at the request of Gov. Paul Burney Johnson Jr., the legislature created an organization designed to use the federal technologies at NASA's new center in South Mississippi as an economic development tool. It was very forward thinking during the same year Mississippi became better known for backward thinking.

Now, more than 40 years after that first step towards leveraging federal technologies, South Mississippi has become a key player in a field that's considered one of the emerging fields of the 21st century - geospatial technologies.

Although the field is still developing, products and services are expanding rapidly and have become part of daily life. Programs like Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth are available to the general public. Mobile phones and computing devices, weather forecasts and more are some of the more obvious daily uses of geospatial technologies. And while the list is long, it's getting longer.

The field

The Department of Labor calls the geospatial technologies field "a truly 21st century career … where new 'offshoot' opportunities are occurring all the time."

Geospatial technologies encompass a range of disciplines brought together to create a detailed picture of the physical world. It includes surveying, mapping, remote sensing, geographic information systems and global positioning systems. It plays a huge role in the defense industry, where imaging and sensors are key for systems ranging from weapons to surveillance platforms. And their use in non-military systems is increasing.

Trying to judge the size of the marketplace is no small feat. Directions Magazine, which focuses on the industry, pointed out in a January podcast that studies have been done on portions of the industry, but "nobody's knit all that stuff together." Part of the difficulty is because it's a horizontal technology that permeates other industrial sectors. Still, some have tried to place a figure on the industry.

The University of Mississippi's Enterprise for Innovative Geospatial Solutions said geospatial technologies are part of an "an emerging $30 billion global technology industry sector," while an article in Geospatial Solutions said the spatial technology industry is poised to be a $60 billion to $100 billion market within the next decade.

The 2006 "Defense Industrial Base Assessment" by the Commerce Department said U.S. imaging and sensors manufacturers sales growth between 2001 and 2005 rose from $2.55 billion to over $3.8 billion.

Numbers aside, everyone agrees the industry is widely dispersed. Directions Magazine attempted to map the industry through an analysis of subscribers and found California, Colorado, Texas, Virginia, Georgia and Florida with high concentrations of geospatial companies.

The Defense Industrial Base Assessment lists 43 federal labs and research centers in the District of Columbia and 20 states, including Mississippi, that perform geospatial-related RDT&E.

Mississippi as a player

At least one observer thinks Mississippi's cluster is unique.

"What we are seeing here is unprecedented," said Carl Schramm, president of the Kauffman Foundation. In a quote appearing in Mississippi's Guide to Geospatial Technology, he said the cluster "has been methodically put together piece by piece. When the market forces kick in, this cluster is going to take off faster than others created by chance."

Mississippi has made the geospatial cluster a target industry. Geospatial businesses are spread throughout the state, but a heavy concentration is in South Mississippi thanks to John C. Stennis Space Center, a NASA field office, and the Center of Excellence.

It's home to several federal labs involved in geospatial-related RDT&E activities, including NASA, the Department of Defense and the Department of Commerce. In addition, several universities are closely involved in the geospatial activities at Stennis.

- David Tortorano