Back in the day Chris Ingrassia wrote a document for us on what he thought the future of GIS would be, called the “The Once and Future Map”. Two articles recently reminded of Chris’s thoughts. The first was Don Meltz’s blog post+comments “GIS is Dead – Long Live GIS“, and the second was an article in ArcNews, “GIS Professionals Lead the GeoWeb Revolution”. Thoughts around the topic have been proliferating across many blogs.
It is striking how diametrically divergent the views are in the two pieces. Granted one is title “GIS is Dead” and the other is written by the largest GIS vendor in the world. That said there are some very different thoughts about where our industry is headed. To provide a bit of context take Direction Magazine’s Adena Schutzberg’s comment to Meltz’s post “The other thing to bear in mind, I think, is that “desktop GIS” is slowly dying, so learning it is not a long term career move.” Then compare that to ArcNew’s take, “Desktop GIS will continue to grow as the solution for most spatial analysis projects and the fundamental authoring platform for creating the majority of the geographic information on the GeoWeb.”
I believe the main point of divergence centers on the role and future of the GIS professional. Meltz states “GIS is on it’s way out as a profession””, while ArcNews states “GIS professionals are more relevant than ever”. I actually think both statements have merit. Having a solid grasp of geographic concepts and theory is going to be increasingly relevant to a geo-enabled world, but access to technology tools to implement those concepts is going to increase dramatically. The current GIS practice of the map being a one directional work flow where GIS professionals create maps and the rest of the world is limited to viewing them is on the way out, if not already through the door.
The single directional flow of maps seen in the diagram in ArcNews is in the midst of being changed to a bi-directional flow. Society is creating maps and pushing data back to GIS professionals. The GIS professional is still very much part of the game, but not the gate keeper or sole purveyor of maps. The philosophy promoted in ArcNews that “the map…is a rich stand alone information product than must be designed carefully for end users (by GIS professionals)” is being bypassed by several technologies. There have been millions of Google MyMaps created. GeoCommons alone has over 14,000 maps designed by non-professionals. This includes thematic mapping and spatial/temporal analysis. SpatialKey, RhizaLabs, MapSpread and several others provide similar services for non-professionals.
I think statistics is the better analogy for where we’ve seen this shift in the past. For many years statistics was the domain of specialists who used packages like Stata, SPSS and SAS. Then spreadsheets came along allowing non-professionals to do basic statistical work. Over time spreadsheets became more complex allowing users to do more sophisticated statistical analysis, but statisticians are still alive and well. In fact many are saying statistics is one of the hot job prospects in the next ten years.
In short the destiny of GIS is not to be walled garden where the GIS professional dictates what can be a map. Instead it is a community where GIS professionals are a thriving participant contributing to a growing ecosystem of map creators and data contributors. The removal of the walls and control is critical to the science of GIS growing and its power being appreciated by the public. You can only appreciate a persons value when you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. We need to embrace both – what the map once was and what it will be in the future.
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