Last night I saw a tweet from Mike Migurski at Stamen about a San Francisco meetup called NoGIS.  Totally intriguing, so I followed the link, and they had the following quick desciption posted up:

“What does mapping technology look like when it’s created distinctly for the web? What was once exclusively the realm of traditional geographers is now accessible by almost any web developer thanks to tools like openlayers, polymaps, mapnik, and tilestache. Conversely, concepts that would be foreign in offline mapping (like map tiles) are the centerpoint of how people think about maps on the web. The nature of the problem has changed and technology is rushing to solve it. We’ve gathered some presenters to show us interesting things happening in our field.”

So, if you are wondering why this is called NoGIS?   It is an homage to NoSQL.  Which begs the question what is NoSQL?  At a high level NoSQL is a movement in database management approaches that ditched the classic relational database approach for new innovations that strived to create distributed datastores (minus ACID).  This included techniques like key-value stores, document databases, and graph databases.  In short – for a lot of emerging data streams, which that are often high volume, dynamic, and persistent – the traditional SQL paradigm did not work.

My interpretation of Mike’s post – we are at a similar cross roads in mapping technology.  Arguably we’ve collectively been there for several years, but I think we are at a point where the broader market is catching up.  For decades, location and geography have been their own special niche, served by GIS technology from a fairly small number of vendors.  As many have pointed out “spatial is no longer special” and as a result location is quickly becoming a feature of many technologies.  As location base apps become ubiquitous the characteristics of geographic data are changing as well.  The data of this new paradigm does not look like the static parcel data, which is stereotypical of much traditional GIS work.  As we saw in the NoSQL characteristics data is now high volume, dynamic and users/developers want to see/query it in real time.  This is something traditional GIS was not built to do, and on multiple levels Mike and company’s analogy to NoSQL is quite apropos.  The list of talks for the meet up reinforces and illuminates the thought:

Michal Migurski from Stamen Design is giving a talk titled “Fast, Cheap, or Dumb: Pick Three,” about the design and publishing of geographic visualizations and interfaces with a bias towards simplicity and reach.

Mike Malone from SimpleGeo is exploring the real world technical challenges faced at SimpleGeo while building a web-scale spatial database on top of Apache Cassandra, as well as some new developments & lessons learned.

Sha HwangZain Memon from Trulia will probably just wing it.

Looks to be just the first meet-up, but it poses an interesting question as to what innovations does a reinvention of geographic information call for.  Visualization and data management are two obvious ones.  What else?  Traditionally GIS analysis is static.  If we are streaming data in real time shouldn’t our analyses also update in real time.  What are the repercussions of dynamically changing analyses.  Does this go beyond developers, or are we just creating a new ivory tower? With all the new data management horsepower what do massive sample sizes mean to spatial statistics.  How do we look at verification and validation in age of crowdsourcing?  How do you deal with error bounds when data is constantly changing?  Is it all a relic?  There have probably been few other times it has been more interesting to be a geo-nerd.


Following the Twitter thread on NoGIS I was reminded of our own internal decision to move away from SQL for GeoCommons. We did a presentation on it for Where 2.0 in 2008 and it was interesting to look at where and why we diverged from the traditional path back then.

Where 2.0 NoSQL Presentation 2008 – GeoIQ

View more presentations from seagor.
Yes – the title was awful – I’m not sure what I was thinking.

24 Responses to What Does NoGIS Mean?

  1. giohappy says:

    IMHO this is non-sense. It’s like sayng that displayng a chart on a website doesn’t need Statistics (noStats?). Collect, analyze and map geographical features disappears behind the easiness you can retrieve gis data though web services and APIs, and somehow visualize them on a map. Ok, it’s good the more people has access to these technologies and infrastructures, but don’t forget what is behind the scenes: people, know-how, analysis that gives sense to a lonlat data…

  2. Paul Ramsey says:

    GIS has always been “NoGIS”. That is, most “GIS” has not been done running coverage overlays and summary statistics, cost models or basin fills. It’s been done by laying a bunch of acetates on top of a base map and eyeballing them. The fancy stuff has *always* been the minority use case.

  3. seagor says:

    Thanks for the feedback and it brings up a good point. I’m not inferring that GIS and NoGIS are mutually exclusive, and I would not try to deconstruct (No)GIS as a literal definition. I believe what we are seeing is a new class of computational problems that traditional GIS is not well structured to handle. That does not mean the traditional classes of problems have gone away.

    I do think we are seeing a fundamental change that these new computational solutions are enabling. “People behind the scenes (GIS professionals)” being the brokers of geographic knowledge is no longer going to be an exclusive club. The future is self-service for the masses and collaboration with experts, not a one way flow.

  4. Mohamad Obeid says:

    The question is (and I’m quoting here) : Do we want people to know GIS or we want them to do GIS ?

    I believe that we want them to do GIS and our role, as geographers and GIS professionals, is to ensure that they are doing GIS in the right way and getting the right answers…

  5. Simple Simon says:

    Feels like where we’re heading. I keep coming back to the fact that we use the same basic tools (in myriad combos) over an over again. Yet we embed all this into big fat clients with bells and whistles and borrowed technology (stats, CAD, etc.) Yet, at the root, buffer, union, intersect, overlay…add some stats and a slider bar and voila! GIS. Is that much wrapper really necessary? Can’t these just be discrete little service-bots that we lash up out there?

  6. Eric Wolf says:

    One of the “features” of big-name GIS is a set of “standard” geoprocessing operations. I believe the concept stems originally from Goodchild’s GISystems vs. GIScience articles in the early 90s. The idea is that these geoprocessing operations would be sort of like the tool bag of tests wielded by statisticians. That the people wielding the operations would be Geographers rather than Computer Scientists. Goodchild wanted to keep GIS inside of Geography and not let it become a specialty area in Computer Science.

    This is a fundamental design concept behind ESRI’s products – a set of operations that can be wielded in different manners (in the Toolbox, in ArcServer, in Python arcgisprocessing module, etc). At one time they are a set of command line tools in Unix. Now they are Windows COM objects.

    WPS is an attempt to turn these geoprocessing operations into web resources that can be strung together. What’s worse than the latency from a SOAP request: if that SOAP request triggers a SOAP request to another server, and it’s SOAP requests all the way down.

    Most FOSS GIS tools lack the geoprocessor. But this is by design. It turns out that most of these operations are pretty simple to implement in code and run much faster when you don’t have to wait for an entire spatial extent to be processed in one method before feeding it into the next.

    ArcGIS processor used to take Shapefiles in and spit out Shapefiles. You couldn’t get at the intermediate data structures. A result of the Python module is a slew of Geographers learning to write very un-pythonic Python code.

    To me, the nature of noGIS is people who’ve learned enough computer science to realize that the Goodchild/ESRI model is fundamentally flawed. Instead of teaching programming in the Geography Department, someone should be teaching a little Geography in Computer Science Departments.

    • Brett says:

      “Most FOSS GIS tools lack the geoprocessor. But this is by design. It turns out that most of these operations are pretty simple to implement in code and run much faster when you don’t have to wait for an entire spatial extent to be processed in one method before feeding it into the next.”
      Which leads to statistical disasters like the HeatMap API. As you start looking under the hood of the manner in which FOSS GIS and ESRI tools are used, most of the time they are being used incorrectly. Just because few people use geostatistics correctly (or not at all), does not mean you should not enable and even target your tools to use geostatistics correctly.

  7. [...] upcoming NoGIS event triggered some Twitter chatter and a few blog posts (here and here and [...]

  8. NS says:

    I guess their concept of NoGIS referring to Maps. They are equating map rendering as GIS. Mapping is just small part of GIS.

  9. Spike says:

    Two great quotes form last night’s meetup kinda allay some of the fears or concerns of elite techno-empires:

    From Michal Migurski: nogis started as a joke really..

    From Mike Malone: it’s a stupid name for an interesting trend

    To my surprise there was no real animosity nor attitude of GIS is crap at all, just some very smart folks trying to think about new problems large and small and now changes in CPU power, distributed data and storage models and how traditional GIS and databases aren’t up to some of those challenges. All the presenters acknowledged that some form of traditional GIS seems to exist at some stage of much of what they are doing, just in a utilitarian way, which is sensible- use the right tools for the right job.

    So from someone who is a GISP (cough) and plays with web viz and GIS-less tools this is a way to arrange some of our thoughts on how to do and manage “geo” without a standard esri stack. It’s not for every local government asset management GIS team to freak out about or to rush into, but it is challenging when you realize the power of some of the nogis style tools being developed on the interwebs. Challenging in all the right ways – it forces us to think about geo and data and the web differently.

    Change, is hard, but powerful.

    Now I must go uninstall ArcGIS 10 and reinstall 9.3 because the DOJ doesnt train on 10 yet, change…

  10. David Medeiros says:

    It strikes me that the only people for whom ‘NoGIS’ would be a revelation (or a threat) are those who have only ever know GIS as the method for working with spatial information. I can’t say that I fully understand this as a movement but I do understand the urge to move away from silos and proprietary GIS structures. A good deal of this is probably not much more than the realization that serving up and consuming basic geographic data often requires little analytical processing, just faster, easier, more intuitive ways of accessing the information.

  11. seagor says:

    Spike – thanks for the feedback from the meet up wish we could have been there, but the commute was a bit challenging. I think your and Brett’s comments sum it up well. There is a lot to be learned from the science of GIS for better methods and analysis, and there is lots to be learned on the computational and accessibility/design from folks like Malone and Migurski.

    I think the trick is avoiding what Eric Wolf documented – where we try to wall off GIS from other disciplines in a monolithic structure. The days of “geo” as a niche are gone, and it needs to be integrated into the larger ecosystem. There will be plenty of kicking and screaming along the way, but believe it is an inevitable destination.

  12. [...] развернулась дискуссия NoGIS vs. Neo- vs. «Paleo»-geography (1, 2, 3). Сам термин NoGIS происходит от NoSQL и его приверженцы [...]

  13. [...] post is inspired in part by Eric Wolf’s comments on the recent NoGIS post by Sean [...]

  14. [...] NoGIS란 제목의 글 있다. 웬지, 이글은 예전에 GIS가 도구나 학문이냐는 이슈를 떠오르게 [...]

  15. Carl Reed says:

    Interesting concept – NoGIS. Following up on Pauls’ comment, the (very) traditional definition for a geographic information system is , “GIS is a system of hardware and software used for storage, retrieval, mapping, and analysis of geographic data.” This is a very generic definition. In my mind, such as definition is extremely inclusive and covers everything from a very simple web mapping application to very complex, highly sophisticated tools or applications. I think the problem is that a tool (software package) has become synonymous with the term GIS. For me, any application that provides location/geographic based information that aids in helping me make a decision is GIS. This can be a simple map or table.As such, I also totally disagree with the concept that GIS requires some level of powerful processing tools.

    And Eric, in terms of WPS and REST check out:


  16. [...] развитием идеи NoSQL. Итоги широкой дискуссии в блогах Sean Gorman – James Fee - Mano Marks собраны в статье Directions Magazine. И [...]

  17. [...] using the affordances that the web necessitates. A trend we were thinking about neatly summarized (blog) at a #NoGIS meetup by Mike [...]

  18. [...] (en bedoeld als gereedschap) hebben geculmineerd in Statlas. Dit past tegelijkertijd ook in de NoGIS trend om traditioneel moeilijke technologie zoals GIS te ontsluiten via het [...]

  19. [...] The current fad is to take some of the most familiar acronyms associated with each topic area and add the word “No” in front of them – presumeably in the hope of distancing the subjects from their tired, historic associations. So in the database world, instead of SQL (Structured Query Language), we now have NoSQL (sometimes “Not Only Structured Query Language”). And, if you work with spatial data, we now have not only the GIS but also the NoGIS. [...]