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Archive for November 6th, 2014

Splitting, Expanding, Maturing, Polarizing …. GIS is Changing

Thursday, November 6th, 2014

Splitting, bifurcating, expanding, maturing, polarizing …. GIS is changing.

We are living through a time of transformation in our industry. The advent of cloud and mobile technology has put much focus on location, and technology which is location focused. That’s our technology. Demand is growing from outside our industry for the output from a GIS: mapping, analysis, discovery and more.

But the question has to be asked: are these winds of change internally driven or fueled by this new demand?

Splitting, Expanding, Maturing, Polarizing …. GIS is Changing

The recent blog post I wrote asking the question “Is GIS Splitting?” was met with a large response. Splitting suggests two or more disparate parts. Joe Francica at Directions Magazine in a podcast discussing the question suggested maturing or expanding (note, the term “splitting” was used in the original post to start the conversation. I agree with Joe and most of those who responded, that GIS is actually expanding).

Brian Haslam provided some interesting feedback on this question:

“My viewpoint comes from nearly 25 years of Esri GIS experience with local government. I prefer to put the focus on GIS expanding to meet unique workflow needs where it has not been traditionally used or the use has been marginal. As organizations see their GIS as their most up-to-date authoritative data, which can be rendered as a map (reports, tables, charts, etc.), and can provide spatial analytically tools for decisions support, use of the GIS explodes throughout for specialized and other uses.”

Terminology aside, there is a strong suggestion that two clear-cut communities are evolving: “old and new” (note, though i will use these terms in this post I actually prefer “traditional” and “emerging”). And that the marketplace is driving this divide. The “old” serves predominantly the current user community. While the “new” is focused on the newly emerging user base.

Joe Berry commented as follows:

“My minor contribution to the discussion is two-fold:

1) The root source of the divergence is the level of understanding of the full potential of geotechnology (both in the developer and user communities); and,

2) Geotechnology advances are effectively driven by the marketplace (users, not developers).”

Finding a Common Language

Geospatial, geotechnology, geomatics, Géomatique, mapping ….

We have developed our own language. The language of geospatial. Discussions continue on our somewhat insular vernacular. See this discussion started by Joe Berry on this topic. One respondent I think sums things up nicely:

“All the names and acronyms we use among industry-insiders really don’t work well at all for outsiders. All seem to leave puzzled looks and beg the need for more explanation.”

I’ve never hidden my dislike for the term geospatial. It is off-putting, confusing and to some degree intimidating to those outside the industry. Maybe most importantly it poorly communicates what we do. As the conversation Joe started suggests, old GIS is happy with our current vernacular, while new GIS sees change (additions/updates) as essential to help communicate with, and provide solutions to the new user base.

A new Breed of Geographer

GeoSpatial practitioner, geospatial developer… location specialist

Any GIS client solution is a combination of input from trained geospatial experts, often geographers, and geospatial developers. As Clark Beattie puts it:

“I’ve been in this business for 45 years and seen many changes over that time, most of them for the good. I view GIS as a spectrum which starts with the G part and ends with the IS part. The percentage of spectrum used in a given situation depends on how the geospatial science needs to be applied and the knowledge/capabilities/skills of the practitioner. Some solutions need more G and others more IS. In any given solution one [G nor IS] can’t exist without the other and their appropriate combination makes the GIS work.”

I agree with Clark, this status-quo serves old GIS well. But for new GIS, are we missing a third expert or at least skillset? Those who can understand the challenges faced by the “new” user base. Who can talk a common language and present appropriate understandable approaches and solutions.

Again Joseph Berry:

“The ‘old and new’ paradigm gaps for both the developers and users are at least partially the result of geospatial education’s focus on ‘Specialist’ training with commercial software; and to some degree a movement away from the development of “flagship” software to “business case” solutions”

There is little doubt that GIS practitioners are worried about their future. They see their value as eroding, and wonder if they should become more certified (GISP) or learn programming. Publishing a map is one thing, understanding the data and concepts is quite another. Ever more computer scientists are learning GIS concepts, and applying their IT skills within our industry.

But this proposed third group (I’ll call them location specialists) is rare. There is no training or even widespread recognition of their need. But for new GIS to flourish we need ‘translators’. We need individuals, who understand the challenges faced by the wider ‘non-GIS’ community. Who can bridge the divide, and communicate spatial solutions to a new set of problems, targeted at a new diverse group of users.

One can speculate on the source of these ‘translators’. Maybe from two directions — analytically thinking GIS’ers and spatially thinking domain experts. Since GIS education has not made its way across campus, the latter group remains small. The widespread adoption of SpatialSTEM at the college level, is potentially very important.

Conclusion

There seems little doubt there is a shift underway in our industry. A new very large potential user base has emerged, which is driving change. As an industry we are in the recognition and defining phase. And there is plenty of resistance.

To quote Joseph Berry again:

“Regardless, folks both outside and inside the field need to recognize that digital maps have taken us well “beyond mapping” to entirely new ways to collect, process, analyze and display mapped data and spatial information.”

My opinion is that we will over time see greater recognition of this divergence, and an increasing effort on the part of our industry to bridge the emerging divide. Old GIS continues business as usual. Those focused on new GIS are entering new uncharted territory. Opportunities and challenges abound.

As the saying goes change is good. At the minute two communities have emerged inside our industry: the “old” and “new”. Will they coalesce or remain separate? Only time will tell.

Agree. Disagree. Thoughts?

Let me know matt.sheehan@webmapsolutions.com

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