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Archive for October, 2012

What is GIS? Why after 30+ years, do I feel like the field has an identity crisis?

Posted by smathermather on October 27, 2012

A few of great articles/presentation have come out recently(ish) on the nature of geospatial industry identity.  3 of note:

1) Paul Ramsey’s talk: Spatial IT & the Spatial Web

2) Brian Timoney’s post: If Mapping is So Big, Why Does GIS Feel So Small?

3) James Fee’s short, but (apparently) inflammatory post: Goes Without Saying

These three sources are highlighting aspects of GIS/Geospatial industry’s shifting identity.

Here I summarize their questions, or the questions they are trying to answer thusly:

  1. What is GIS?
  2. Why after 30+ years, do I feel like the field has an identity crisis?
  3. Does this mean all Geospatial folks get to drive a convertible sports car, and act out all the parts of being in a midlife-crisis?
  4. Do I feel this way, ’cause in a fixed point arithmetic system, rounding to the nearest tens, half the time my age rounds to 40?  Do I get a convertible sports car and get to act out all the parts of being in a midlife-crisis?

These questions and fewer will be addressed here!

Now, there are a few things fueling shifts in the GeoSpatial industry.  Notably, ESRI, for all their billions of dollars, brilliant (if un-hip), closed-source, and patented software, huge (and smallish and mediumish) government contracts is having an identity crisis.  That makes everyone nervous.  They are moving into the services (not just the proprietary licensing) portion of the sector, and streamlining workflows that before required technicians and analysts to complete, so they are directly competing with their a) resellers and b) users.  That is a scary change indeed.  (Couldn’t find James Fee’s coverage of this topic, but he covers it well, as ESRI started to move openly in these directions).

More importantly in the shifts that are taking place, ESRI is no longer the exclusive GeoSpatial Brain Trust.  Once MapServer started, PostGIS was a natal spatial extension, JTS came to life, and GEOS came to underpin PostGIS simple features, no multi-billion dollar thumb was going to hold back the waters.

Brian, Paul and James touch on aspects of the changes a-foot, whether it’s Brian or James’ “Get your stuff together kids, or the mallet will hit you hard” or Paul’s talk, which sets a direction for the industry, the message is the same– the industry is changing quickly.  As to what that change means, I diverge slightly from Paul.  Brian’s post I’ll address in a separate post.  Fee is just right in stating essentially GIS analysts are programmers, should act like programmers, and thus learn Python.  I won’t add to his message.  (Although, there are more choices.  What about Ruby on Rails, the geospatial version.  Oh, yeah.  There is a Rails API for CartoDB… .  Anyway.  Python is one option among many.  Some slackers keep relying on BASH for their flow control… .)

1) Paul Ramsey’s talk: Spatial IT & the Spatial Web

Paul, as usual, gives a salient analysis of the future and value of geospatial services in the context of the web, and in the process makes the assertion (to quote the OpenGeo summary): “that the future is Spatial IT professionals working on the Spatial Web”.

I have thought a lot about the question of whether GIS is “spatial IT”, and the longer I think about it, the more I think, “Ya, kinda.”  Certainly, the better I get to know my colleagues in IT and vice versa, the more they suggest that, “Really smathermather, you should be in IT”.  Should I?  I am not so sure.

Why am I not so sure?  For one, GIS is arguably a technical twist on landscape architecture, planning, and design, laced with spatial infrastructure (operational) support.  The reason the whole cacophony of GIS approaches fall quite well into “Planning” as a discipline (but are usually structurally hindered by such an approach) is because of this shared root.  So, saying GIS should be in IT is a little like saying Marketing and Graphic Design should be in IT because they so heavily use computers these days; or the opposite: IT should be in Treasury/Finance, etc., because those were the first groups to need computers.  GIS is Planning technically embodied.  So what does that make it?  IT?  Planning?  Engineering? Finance?

And why then the artificial distinction between GIS and Planning?  If GIS is Planning technically embodied, should they not be conflated?  Two reasons why not.  One:  The efficacy of GIS can be hindered by slavishly tying it to Planning in large part because there is wider and deeper applicability to GIS than to Planning’s typical functions.  Lemma:  Paul is partially right.  Insofar as GIS is or should be spatial IT, GIS is a different beast than the disciplines that birthed it.  Two: As different as it is, the best GIS (or spatial IT, or whatever), is that which uses technology as a tool for leadership through enabling better communication, better and more timely information, and information management that enables organizations, individuals, and enterprises to act more intelligently (sounds like an ESRI advertisement).  This applies to TriMet’s new multimodal transportation tool, OpenGeo’s demo of improved NHD editing, Chris Holmes theoretical augmentation of this NHD model, and other projects like Ride the City.  This applies to OpenStreetMap.  This makes it squarely a Planning exercise.  However, in my experience, planners typically begrudgingly accept GIS in the context of leadership.  GIS is a technical problem to be solved once the decision makers set the direction.  In seeing GIS as a tool, Planning tends to treat GIS domain experts as tools.

So, is/should GIS be Spatial IT?  I think we can say that by extension to the above, great GIS deepens and broadens the role of planning (through enabling better communication, blaa blaa blaa) to operational support by means of spatial IT.  Or more precisely:

“So, is/should GIS be Spatial IT?”

“Ya, kinda, but it’s a lot more fun when it’s a really great (and slightly disruptive– bad connotations aside) planning tool.”

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