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Matt Sheehan
Matt Sheehan
Matt holds an MSc in Geography and GIS. He has been working with clients solving problems with GIS for over 17 years. Matt founded WebMapSolutions whose mission is to put innovative, intuitive GIS driven applications into the hands of new and existing users.

Strong Response to Podcast on Is GIS Splitting?

October 22nd, 2014 by Matt Sheehan

GIS faces huge challenges. Far greater than it faced in the 90’s with the explosion of the Internet.

And the opportunities for those who solve these challenges are unprecedented.

GIS is moving from being a peripheral, niche technology to an integrated core technology. Let me repeat that: GIS is moving from the periphery to the core.

This is at the heart of both the challenge and the opportunity. What this means is that .. none of the old rules apply.

Sure the core technology remains the same. And is evolving at an astounding pace. But the technology is one thing, how we talk about, and apply it is quite another. We have a new set of users. A much wider group who neither understand nor care about GIS.

New GIS users want to use the technology without the technology getting in the way.

Use the same old GIS language, approach problems with the same old mindset. And you cling to the past.

Joe and Adena at Directions Magazine devoted a recent podcast to a question we posed in a blog post The GIS Industry is Splitting?.

The conversation can be heard at the link below. It is worth listening to the podcast (12 mins long) before reading the rest of this blog post:

Directions Magazine Podcast: Is GIS Splitting?

Discussion Points

In the podcast Adena mentions our company name WebMapSolutions “no GIS in there” she says. That was our intention.

WebMapSolutions is a hardcore GIS company. Our work goes back to the 90’s when we realised the opportunity presented by the Internet and began our journey with Esri’s MapObjects IMS. That is nearly 20 years of GIS history. We’ve seen fads and terminology come and go. Our success has been based on understanding, and providing great solutions (not nebulous marketing and positioning ploys).

To some of Joe and Adenas discussion points:

GIS is Expanding and Maturing

I think Joe makes a good point about expanding and maturing, and likely this is what is happening. But this process will be held back by traditional GIS thinking. GIS is not expanding to “meet specialised users”, its expanding to “meet new Non-GIS users”. That is the challenge and huge opportunity.**

** Just a note here, based on some excellent feedback – this maybe better worded as a “focus on GIS expanding to meet unique workflow needs where it has not been traditionally used or the use has been marginal.”

Who are these new Users?

Anybody with access to a computer, smartphone, phablet or tablet. Consumers, executives, maintenance staff, attorneys, geologists. The list goes on. In today’s world that means a large chunk of the worlds population!

Confusion Reins

The podcast mentions platforms. Ask your clients or staff about their understanding of a GIS platform. Throw SAAS model or the cloud in for good measure. Look for the blank stare. People do not understand. That will change. But many (most) are fearful of change and confused by the rapid evolution. Falling back on old traditional ways is natural and a ‘head in the sand’ strategy. Mention augmented reality and you are going off into outer space.

GIS Professionals feel Threatened

We keep hearing: “GIS is too easy now”. “My skills are being wasted, or no longer relevant”. Many in the GIS profession feel confused and threatened by the evolution of GIS. I agree with Joe opportunities abound, we have to make these folks realise they have never been more valuable.

GIS is Intermingling with other Technologies

Again Joe makes a good point. Intermingling is truly exciting. Its an area in which we as a company spend much time and effort. There are significant challenges here. Maybe the biggest is a shared lack of understanding. I’ll give an example. SAP are very interested in integrating with ArcGIS. But GIS folk do not understand SAP nor SAP understand GIS. There is a disconnect at every level. Mine are non traditional conversations with SAP. They are new conversations, almost a dance. To find new ground. New words, and new points of reference.

Flexibility – intuitive, extensible, configurable, cross platform and cross device, offline

Traditional GIS talks loudly about configurable applications. And that is mostly what is on offer, Joe and Adena, currently. That is nice, but clients don’t only want configurable. They want applications which are easy to use (intuitive), can be altered for their own needs and workflows (extensible, configurable), work across all devices (cross platform and cross device), and are always available (connected and disconnected). They want true flexibility. This is what companies like ours are now providing.

Is GIS is splitting?

Let’s consider the core proposition: is GIS splitting? Not the core technology. That continues to evolve rapidly. But those who recognise and are solving the challenges are different. A new branch of the same discipline maybe, but these folks have thrown away their traditional thinking. These are the ground-breakers.

In finishing, the original post was written to start a discussion. And to rattle a few cages. It has been very successful on both counts. The response has been very surprising. I agree with some of Joe and Adena’s podcast observations. They have had the same long term experience of GIS as ourselves. Our perspectives are different, which is very healthy. And yes, I’d be happy to join a podcast with them both to talk further.

I perceive GIS as churning. It faces big challenges. The old thought leaders are just that. A new breed are emerging. They are focused on the future and not the past. They recognise the challenges and are working hard finding solutions. Technically savvy, this group are appealing to a new set of users. They know the old rules no longer apply. They have adapted their language and approach. New leaders are emerging. Will they help drive the expansion and maturing, or forge a new path?

Only time will tell.

Agree. Disagree. Thoughts? Let me know

See the GIS Community feedback to the podcast.

Related posts:

Categories: ArcGIS Online, Mobile ArcGIS, Mobile GIS, Web and mobile GIS

2 Responses to “Strong Response to Podcast on Is GIS Splitting?”

  1. Courtney Ellerbusch says:

    Great topic. Technology is always changing, evolving, (splitting too harsh, negative). Anyone involved with technology for more than 5 years has had to evolve with it or get out. For many years, starting up a GIS section, the first order of business was to collect data so in order to provide meaningful analysis. Several years ago when mobile map (geocoding) apps were introduced to the masses on smart phones I thought it was horrible. Crowd sourcing would corrupt the quality data GIS professionals dedicated themselves. Quickly understanding the (statistical) value of thousands of data points over a couple high quality points, changed my mind. GIS professionals are still very relevant, they now have to use their skills to tease out the relevant data, make sense of it for the masses. Bring it on!

  2. Carl Reed says:

    If one “ignores” the term GIS and thinks in the more general terms, then geospatial content and processing has been at the core of countless enterprise systems, standards activities, and information communities for some period of time. For example, in 2002 I began working internet standards as part of the IETF GeoPRIV Working Group. This group has a requirement for defining a consistent model and encoding for civic and geodetic locations for communicating location as part of the infrastructure for numerous applications, such as Next Generation 911 applications, SIP, and so on. Many corporations represented in the work and not a GIS geek (except for me) among them. Some of the participants had heard of GIS but GIS technology was not relevant to them. They had a set of requirements for working with and communicating location based content. GIS in any form was overkill. They have now defined a suite of internet standards that use a consistent model and encoding, call a location object, for communicating location. This LO is an element or extension for numerous internet standards being used by anyone and everyone using the internet. Not GIS but definitely at the core!

    Courtney – there are some excellent funded research projects in the European Union looking at measures of quality and uncertainty of volunteered location enabled environmental data. Check out COBWEB for example.


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