By any measure, 2020 is a tumultuous year. Challenges to society and the environment call for geospatial solutions. Where are resources affected by climate change? How is COVID-19 spreading and where do we need resources to protect our most vulnerable? Is there a pattern of social injustice and how can we best reduce conflict?
While there are inroads, most results are often simple maps. Seeing COVID-19 data on a map is nice but does not show much more than a Google Map. Symbol sizing based on underlying data has been around since the 1980s but now you access it on a browser or smart device. We need something new or the geospatial industry will continue to be constrained by old thinking and architecture. It is time to break up the GIS industry.
How We Got Here
The GIS market came from the need to automate spatial data and derive products from those datasets including maps, connectivity, nearness, and geocoding. These tools allow us to create models of the real world in 2D and visualize it in interactive maps. These tools are important and still positions GIS as the system that is best suited to geospatial data automation.
Unfortunately, today’s leading GIS “platforms” are still based on this same architecture and thinking. They string geospatial tools together to make map dashboards from data in the cloud. In the past, it would have been smart maps from data on a server. The tools are the same but on new platforms. While this is nice, it is not is needed. In the worse case, lacking a solid design and capability, making an extension and marketing brochure to check the box on needed geospatial functionality such as big data and IoT integration is just wrong.
What we need is a disruption of the GIS industry.
There are some fundamental issues with GIS that fundamentally need to change. Many are outdated or outlived their original purpose. If we were to start from scratch, began with the notion that foundational geospatial data is available (vector, raster, imagery, addresses, etc.,) what would we do? Below are some ideas to start the dialog.
Get Rid of the Map Metaphor
Geospatial is not just about maps. Yes, maps can be an output – an important way to visualize information. They definitely are a source of GIS data. But now, geographic principles need to be applied to algorithms in all types of models. From societal behaviors to understanding risk, geospatial knowledge is critical. Geospatial thinking, algorithms, data, models, etc should be easily added to any analysis without using a GIS-centric system. Maps are sources of data and a way to visualize results but should not be the organizing principle of geospatial work.
Rethink Geospatial Data Management
Now that much of the foundational data is automated, we need to rethink how we use, add-to, evolve, and share geospatial data. Single path editing, feature locking, and cartography-based thinking are antiquated. Making users manage intermediated data, manual search for changes, and visually find conflicts is outdated. Bringing geospatial data management to the level of other data types will make a tremendous difference. And, start with the notion that geospatial data is big data. Develop algorithms and models to work fast – super fast – so we can do real-time scenario planning and easily share results.
Offer Solutions not Platforms
Organizations need solutions. They need to focus on their mission, not GIS. Governments should not have to have GIS departments. Utilities should manage their infrastructure data, not a GIS group. Solutions with geospatial capabilities – cadastral systems, outage management, urban planning, crop management, insurance claim management, and more – should be available without having to buy a platform.
Make GIS Tools Easily Available
The most popular GIS functions are becoming commoditized. This trend needs to continue in a more organized fashion. Map visualization, simple geocoding, tracing, routing, nearness, data integration (overlay), editing, etc. are building blocks for tomorrow’s solutions. Once these tools are available outside the locked-in architecture of today’s bloated systems, a whole new generation of applications will create new opportunities.
Making GIS more complex only locks you into outdated technology.
Break Free of Out-Dated Thinking
The GIS community has lamented the lack of visibility, acknowledgment, and support for their work. Many organizations think of the GIS department as the map-makers. Vendors like Esri, have a vested interest in keeping the status quo. Their Users Conference (UC), virtual this year, teaches users the old model, promotes platform thinking, and celebrates siloed thinking. What’s needed is the opposite. We need new leadership that pushes organizations, solution providers, technology innovators, and investors to recognize the value of geospatial capabilities in disrupting existing industries.
Build the Future of GIS
The GIS community is filled with smart, passionate, and innovative people. The challenge for this new era is to go forth and design the future. Esri is not going to do it. They design events such as the UC, to promote their products and tell stories to keep you engaged with their interests. A valuable reason to attend Esri events, however, is the community. The ideas and knowledge shared between attendees are enormously valuable.
It is time for GIS, geospatial, and location intelligence professionals to create events free of Koolaid and platitudes.
Instead of attending the UC this year, use the time to learn open source, investigate alternative solutions, join a non-vendor community, share ideas via #gischat, or build a plan for the future. While this is hard, it is time to plan for a post-Esri world. Let’s design it, bring in innovators, leaders, and entrepreneurs.