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.

esri_flow

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.

 

12 Responses to The Once and Future Map: The Destiny of GIS

  1. “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”

    Very much agree here Sean. I think that GIS professionals are waking up to this very slowly. Thank you for the post.

  2. Doug McCune says:

    I think the comparison to statisticians is entirely accurate. Applied statistics in computer science has long been a field delegated to hardcore scientific research in academia. If you were a mainstream programmer the statistical knowledge required was minimal (hell, the amount of math required is almost inconsequential). But who’s the hot commodity now being courted by the likes of Google, Amazon, Netflix, etc? It’s statisticians. (see http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/06/technology/06stats.html)

    It took technology to advance to a certain point to bring statisticians into the mainstream limelight. We needed storage to become so cheap we never had to throw data away. And now that we got there we have mountains of data, everything from what people are searching for, what they’re buying, watching, reading, eating, etc. We have more data than we know what to do with. And so now statisticians are the hot shit.

    I think a similar thing is going to happen with cartography. As mapping technology becomes a commodity and we have mountains of spatial data, we’re going to see the resurgence of the cartographer (or statistician/cartographer). Suddenly when you have 20 million records to show the spread of a flu pandemic you need to do more than throw it on a map. You need to produce something meaningful. And so the barrier to entry to simply create a map will be completely removed, but the barrier to create a _meaningful_ map will always be there. And with the move we’re seeing toward truly massive datasets, that distinction will become incredibly important.

    So I agree that the knowledge of how to make a map (which for a long time has been the definition of GIS) will become irrelevant, but the knowledge of how to make a meaningful map (cartography and spatial analysis) will become more relevant than ever.

    It took technology to advance to a certain point to bring statisticians into the mainstream limelight. We needed storage to become so cheap we never had to throw data away. And now that we got there we have mountains of data, everything from what people are searching for, what they’re buying, watching, reading, eating, etc. We have more data than we know what to do with. And so now statisticians are the hot shit.

    I think a similar thing is going to happen with cartography. As mapping technology becomes a commodity and we have mountains of spatial data, we’re going to see the resurgence of the cartographer (or statistician/cartographer). Suddenly when you have 20 million records to show the spread of a flu pandemic you need to do more than throw it on a map. You need to produce something

  3. Doug McCune says:

    Ah crap, sorry my comment was jacked there. Those last two paragraphs are repeated and should get removed.

  4. Sean Gorman says:

    Thanks Justin and agree Doug. The macroscopic knowledge of GIS professional about theory and method will always be useful. The microscopic skills of complicated button pushing processes will not be.

  5. [...] of “GIS” (I put that in quotes since I am the one who declared it a myth). James and Sean also weighed with his thoughts on the subject. Like it or not, both are right. The technology that [...]

  6. John Nelson says:

    Thanks, Sean. You’ve distilled the unease around a shifting field that, depending on one’s perspective, is terrifying and/or exciting. I remember distinctly as a GIS student some years back the paranoia hairs on my neck rising with hints of future obsolescence as each new consumer based map service was released. Your summary of respecting the merits of the consumer and professional is right on. Consumers will continue to provide freshness, data, and innovation, and professionals will (ought) to contribute to frameworks, improvement, and research. This defensive debate is no different than the one going on between Journalists and Bloggers (or, as you mentioned, the debate that went on between statisticians and spreadsheet users). The empowerment and relevance of any professional can be plotted by distinguishing between Training and Education. One locks students into the short term track of tool-bound button pushers and the other enables insight, ideas, and improvement. As the technical playing field levels by increasing access to tools and resources –just like in those other fields, the people with great ideas and capabilities will move the market forward. The danger of irrelevance is not when too many people are interested in your turf –but when nobody is.
    -John

  7. Grady Meehan says:

    I agree completely. Standing alone, in isolation, GIS doesn’t have a future that is assured.

    Business geography is the integration of GEOGRAPHIC REASONING + geographic technology (GIS) + geographic (geocoded) data to support the business decision (defined in Grant Thrall’s book on, “Business Geography….”). Geographic reasoning is analogous to statistical reasoning, since it is critically important in complex data analysis and problem-solving.

    Too many people focus on the software, thinking that a two day introductory enables the atended to become an expert. SAS and SPSS are only technologies used by statisticians to leverage their ability to harness and analyze large datasets to solve complex problems. Again, knowing how to use the software doesn’t enable the user to solve complex statistical problems for decision-making.

    GIS combines graphic capabilities of CAD software, database operations for data management and data query, with extended capabilities for spatial logic and map algebra), map projections (and knowledge of datums), all of which can be extended to include spatial statistics (geo-statistics). Each of these knowledge domains requires extensive study and understanding necessary to integrate each of them into a logical systems of analysis. Geographic visualization (mapping) also requires that the map-making process produces a result that is matched to the perceptual abilities and understanding of the audience. Many graphical functions are built into GIS desktop software but knowledge of audience characteristics is needed to produce an effective product.

    Most of the above involve geographic reasoning at a hight level.

    Using basic GIS to create descriptive maps with limited intellectual input just uses technical knowledge much like adding water to a packaged cake mix.

    I liked this post. More professionals and managers need to understand what you said in this entry.

  8. [...] The Once and Future Map, The Destiny of GIS – Sean Gorman [...]

  9. [...] about the future of the GIS ‘profession’ has flared up in recent days – see the comments from Sean Gorman, Steven Feldman (well, citing me) and Don Meltz among others. My personal perspective is about the [...]

  10. I don’t think GIS folks have considered it a walled garden. For the most part everyone involved in spatial technologies has been a pioneer and blazing a trail to a new frontier – sometimes right, sometimes wrong.

    There are a huge number of basic spatial issues we do not understand. I spoke with a well known photogrammetrist recently and he pointed to factors like how the brain connects to visual cues. In other areas we only have to look at culture as it influences how people create maps.

    It would be helpful if more education folks took a leadership position toward revealing new areas of study and pursuit and caused people to think wider.

    On the other hand, perhaps the print industry will become the new digital communicators. They understand design, fonts, lines and communication.

    Keep up the good work. I like the maps you folks produce.

  11. Sean Gorman says:

    Hi Jeff,

    Thanks for the response. Definitely agree about education and new directions for spatial cognition. When it comes to walled gardens – I don’t mean among GIS professional. They’ve always been a collaborative group that generally works well together. The wall has been between the end users and the GIS professionals. Maps go out from GIS professional and they have discussions and data sharing amongst themselves. There is mechanism for non-GIS users to join the conversation, to put their own data on the map, make their own combination of layers. That is where I see the wall currently although it is rapidly being removed in my opinion. which a much bigger pool of people interested in being educated and learning about spatial cognition and such.

    best,
    sean

  12. Chris says:

    As long as outsourcing is there to fall back on for companies and governments there will be NO stable GIS job industry.

    I started at the ground floor in GIS back in 1988. Our company was the biggest user of ESRI software back than and a beta test site for ESRI. That company I worked for is now out of business and my GIS job and all others at that company are now in India. I now have my own small GIS company and it is near impossible to get work. I mostly just do maps, I can’t get real GIS work since it all goes straight to Bangalore India now! This is a cold hard fact I live with and see everyday. People planning to get into GIS need to know this up front.

    I think GIS will die as full blown software packages and evolve more into user friendly standalone apps on tablets and smart devices. The current problem with GIS is the public does not use it, only the software users use it and create data for other GIS software users. GIS was going to be this great save-all public information device. This is what ESRI was pushing, but it NEVER really happened. The only GIS stuff people might see is a pdf map posted on some city site that was made with GIS software.
    Google was had more of an indirect impact with the public with spatial data and GIS. Google Earth could be the next really BIG step in the advancement of GIS. If Google added more GIS tools to Google Earth it would advance GIS growth and data creation 1000 times more than ESRI and the census has. However, a free interface in Google Earth would not go over big with the GIS professionals with Master and PhD level degrees, since they would not be in control and people would know longer need the ESRI software to get things done by professional GIS people.

    Also, the biggest factor is the biggest customer of GIS software. It is 2011 and the government sectors are now broke and can no longer afford to spend vast sums of money on high-end GIS software. I can see many going to the free software like QGIS and having people in India doing more work and writing more of the software and plugins for software like QGIS. It is cheaper, and still advances GIS.