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Archive for the ‘Planning’ Category

What is GIS? (continued again!)

Posted by smathermather on November 27, 2012

In previous posts [1] and [2] I talk about identity crises in GIS/Geospatial world related to real economic changes in the way the geospatial sector is structured.  Comments have been many, but it seems that (my fault here) it quickly devolved into Planning GIS vs. Spatial IT (after all, I was responding to Paul Ramsey’s meme), in other words IT vs. Planning, and the cultural identities of the various parties involved.  That dialectic I find tiring.  GIS/GeoSpatial is both, largely because I’m the type of guy who likes to hack around with code, and I like to do big picture stuff.  To the extent that those are separate things, I see as artificial and generational.  I’m (almost) of the digital native/GenY/Millennial Generation, so I lay claim to the possibility of being good at both.

But let’s get back to James Fee’s supposition of fundamental shifts in the geospatial industry and what they mean to GIS professionals.  To frame this more deeply, I’ll tap Clayton M. Christensen’s article in the New York Times entitled “A Capitalist’s Dilemma: Whoever Win’s on Tuesday” (written just before the presidential election).

Without getting into Mr. Christensen’s conclusions, Christensen frames the innovations associated with economy in three categories:

  • “empowering” innovations
  • “sustaining” innovations
  • “efficiency” innovations.

Empowering innovations are things like the Model T Ford relative to previous automobiles– industry creating efficiencies that result in innovations at scale.  “Cloud” computing he also places in this category, as it allows individuals, small, and medium businesses access to technologies once available only to enterprise level investment.  Empowering innovations create new sectors, new jobs, new career opportunities.

Sustaining innovations are self competing innovations– Toyota Prius as a competing product with the Toyota Camry, in order to prevent competition from without.

Finally efficiency innovations, like Geiko Insurance, are places where refinement of existing technologies results primarily in cost ratio efficiencies of great scale.  This is where labor and other costs are reduced significantly (jobs lost, capital gained).

The distinction between empowering innovations and efficiency innovations fascinates me, as both are about driving down cost ratios– the latter to drive up capital returns, the former to do the same, but by scaling to new markets.  In other words, both are about efficiency, but with a different vision and different outcomes.  Empowering innovations seek efficiency for the purpose of scaling horizontally.

To place this back in the geospatial geoid, and reference again James Fees “Goes without saying“, if you learn to program and engage in geospatial development, then you can hang on to the rope for the ride up that the empowering innovation of the larger field geospatial development allows for.  Yes, your work will become more efficient.  Embrace that.  There’s much more work to be done in the sector, so embrace the efficiencies.  If you choose not to engage in geospatial development, then you may get squeezed by efficiency part of the equation from others, and will not benefit from the horizontal scaling.

Learn a little Python; learn a little PostGIS.  And welcome!

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What is GIS? (continued)

Posted by smathermather on November 2, 2012

In the previous post, I cite Paul Ramsey, Brian Timoney, and James Fee’s various posts on changes in the geospatial sector.  Paul responded with a great post refining his position on Spatial IT vs. GIS.  Due to my argumentative academic training, I can’t leave well enough alone.  Besides, I said I’d follow up on Brian’s post, and the following does so, at least indirectly.

Paul hits the problem on the nose with the following line:

“… (A)s we know, GIS courses are just the bait in the trap, to suck naïve students into a career where” they become either a “digitization monkey” or “map monkey”

Ah, so true, so true.  In brief (ha!), Brian Timoney and James Fee’s posts point to what Paul describes as the end of typical GIS grunt work– work which will “be folded into generic IT workflows, automated, and systematized”.

(Short, but relevant aside.  My wife’s training is in Political Economy and Political Ecology.  She out ranks me with a Ph and D after her name.  She critiques economic systems and is good at it.  Whatever follows of my analysis which is good can be attributed to her.  Whatever is bad, is mine and mine alone.)

So, why so many years of grunt work before the automation?  Why now the end that Brian and Paul declare?  Why must analysts be programmers as Fee declares?  Simple: when I wrote that ESRI was starting to directly directly compete with their a) resellers and b) users, I knew that wasn’t really true.  ESRI has almost always had a) resellers and b) software operators, with a few rare users.  The software operators were valuable to ESRI in order to sell licenses.  In other words, the software was the capital, the software operators the labor, even if that labor was employed by others.  As ESRI gets squeezed, they are in no position to keep all their excess labor.  They will streamline workflows and provide hosting services to drive down cost for the end user at the expense of labor and middlemen.

Your way out as a software operator, is to (in some small or medium or big way) make the software your own, to move from operator to engineer.  Thus, to be an analyst you must be a programmer.  Don’t worry– there’s plenty of space still for good geospatial software engineers.

Finally, Paul draws the distinction between GIS/Planning as

  • high touch and interpersonal;
  • qualitative and presentational;
  • ad hoc and unpredictable.

as contrasted with those flows that can and should be automated.  This is where my tendency to lump (and time in academia) gets in my way of agreeing 100%.  Almost all processes are repeated.  Spend some time doing the high touch, ad hoc, and qualitative work, the fun planning stuff.  As you do it, look for patterns, repetition, and opportunities for automation.  Then, automate the heck out of it.  You’ll thank yourself later.

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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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