Like rhubarb, innovation can be forced. And both are often best served mixed with other elements, from mash-up to crumble. But there, worried reader, this rather superficial comparison ends. The results of forcing innovation are often disastrous, would-be dotcom tycoons forget about market readiness, and that valuable old maxim “nothing succeeds on the Internet until it has failed on the Internet” is set aside. Think of the UK’s Independent newspaper. If management had not innovated around the “I” versioning they would have had nothing to sell this week. Ten years after launch the print paper has come to an end, leaving a website and the sale of the I to Johnston Press, a company which, ten years ago, turned over 600 million pounds from some of the most valuable regional newspaper franchises in Britain to create margins of 130 million pounds. Today its revenues stand where it’s margins did then. It reminds us that innovation in the face of change is often not a choice – more a way of survival.

Which makes it even more odd that the two most innovative cultures experienced in my working life – AI and GIS – have taken so very long to get to market. They have had to do name changes and relaunches as entrepreneurs despaired of bringing these technologies to life in user-appealing fashion. So I well recall the advice of an experienced property man when I said that I was doing some work for an emerging property database service. “Maps and data?”, he said, “people just want to buy and sell – and cheat – when it comes to property”. But I was in thrall to the galvanic energy and enthusiasm of Christopher Roper at the time, and believed differently. The company he sold to DMGT, Landmark Information Group, has gone from strength to strength, added great network acquisitions which bring together the needs of surveyors, conveyance solicitors, mortgage parties and eventually buyers and sellers into the same workflow. From providing a non-mandatory environmental check Landmark has become an essential part of buying and selling property. And all of this was sparked by an agreement with the UK’s Ordnance Survey mapping agency to allow re-use of historical survey data going back to the mid – nineteenth century.

But it was the other deal that Christopher Roper did at this time which has left me wondering all these years. He created a joint venture company between Ordnance Survey and Landmark called Point X. The object here was to gather Point of Interest data. The conventional wisdom then was that you would need this data to customized and innovate. Do you need to know the nearest pub? Or vet surgery? Or are your salesmen calling on newsagents? Or sweet shops? We would gather up the data and then offer it like toppings on ice cream. In the age of mash-up this seemed a very obvious strategy. Unsurprisingly to watchers of the glacial progress of change, it has taken a decade for this to come about. You can imagine my joy therefore when I saw the Landmark Solutions Point of Interest Web Portal launched last month. All of that delicious information combined with the Ordnance Survey Open Source mapping environment. If, as some think, web service innovation is a cookbook which begins “first take a map, and then add data” then a new age has begun.

But many things have happened to GIS in the meanwhile. In local and national government, in logistics and distribution, in planning, in agribusiness and in very many other walks of life we are totally GIS dependent. The icy grasp of systems providers like ESRI means that many of these are very idiosyncratic, so achieving compatibility with an installed base, backwards compatibility, is no easier than it was in the early days of Microsoft and Apple. While GIS clearly failed as a religion, it has succeeded as millions of real solutions. So what do you have to do to cope with that? Well, make a customisable solution for a start. Point X has over 4 million points of interest, but they come in 9 groups, with 52 data categories and some 620 different classifications. Go to the portal and you can mix and match, and then select what you need to do to align your custom creation to the GIS system you are using. And the business mode? This is, as it has to be, a Pay As You Go model! (http://www.landmark.co.uk/news-archive/landmark-solutions-launches-points-interest-demand-web-portal)

In a sense, this now seems obvious to the user-centric world in which we live. Yet service developers always think first about prescribing service values and limiting options, so when they let users do what they want to do it seems like a big deal. Here is Reed’s ICIS chemicals database announcing its new Data Express service a a week ago: “Data updates are highlighted automatically and price history updates are sorted in the same column, making it easy to benchmark prices, identify opportunities, and manage risks. This facilitates smoother decision-making, and increased competitiveness for ICIS customers.” This announcement effectively launches an API and an Excel plug-in! (www.icis.com/data express)

So we are in a familiar place in the industry on the road to innovation. We cannot believe what customers tell us about how they want to use information and we hoard information we cannot believe they want. What happened to making service values for the few and then re-iterating for the many? Or even watching how the customer works and makes decisions – and then helping?

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