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Is GIS splitting? … what the experts think

 by web maps, ArcGIS Online, 1 Comment
Sep 30

I posed the question in a recent blog post: Is GIS splitting?

Are we now looking at a split between traditional GIS and new GIS?

By new GIS I did not mean an offshoot like neogeography. I meant the application of the technology in new industries and use by non-GIS users. This has far reaching implications. Demanding potentially a quite different approach. I received some fascinating feedback by experts in the GIS community on the original post. To each responder I asked whether they would mind my sharing their thoughts with the wider community in this follow up article. Below are some of these responses:

“For its first 25 years or so GIS was in the construction business. It was building homes for applications, tools for businesses, and markets for services. When GIS grew up it became Geospatial Science ready to take on the world with all its new understanding, applications and world wide data resources. Geospatial science has far superseded its adolescence and is now headlong into maturity competing in the information business.”

“Brilliant! I agree and am glad that you have brought up the subject. I’ve noticed this split happening and have been wondering which route to take in regard to my career. I have recently come to the realization that I am stuck between these two worlds – how can I advance as a GIS professional if the organization that I work for does not move forward with the GIS industry? How do I keep the skill set that I have built over the last 14 years relevant?”

“Perhaps, less that the GIS world is splitting than the GIS world beginning to realise spatial’s not the exclusive preserve of traditional Geographic Information Systems?”

“I think your argument sounds familiar, like the “neogeographer” debate from 5-6 years ago. This was when new young people, from outside the industry, developers usually, were whipping out web maps and apps without being grounded in geography and GIS principles and foundations. Some people are calling that “baggage” these days, but it has some use–to keep you from taking inaccurate conclusions from your maps, if nothing else. “

“To some extent I agree with your take and outlook as per split GIS worlds, but let’s not forget GeCo-2014′s slogan…. “Bridging the Divide”. For a GeCo poster presentation I took a very traditional avenue to create a cartographic map product instead of diving into creating a new spatial theory through GIS analysis. However, during the final design phase of my project a voice in my head was telling me to produce it as an all out cloud presentation, ignore the conference presentation rules, then simply tack a QR link onto the presentation easel. That said, I’m a traditionalist within the cartographic arena, though simultaneously am ready to jump all-in to the mobile & cloud GIS arena.
As for the idea of a true split in the GIS industry, I believe that there are three (or more) GIS “worlds”…. old, new, plus a mixed hybrid. Personally, I wouldn’t call it a split, but rather….. evolution.”

“You have some interesting thoughts in your article. I was initially attracted to it because you used the word split, which to me implies that the old and the new have separated and are now distinct. But I believe that there is a nucleus that is holding it all together, and that nucleus is the underlying GIS data. GIS has matured to the point that it is now easier to consume and use GIS data, but the underlying principles haven’t changed. To the contrary, I think GIS is a holistic system that will find more uses with advances in technology.”

“We are in the midst of rethinking our GIS program vision/strategy and are looking at this “new vs old” idea as well. As a GIS professional that is straddling these two worlds, I see lots of opportunity ahead but rocky shores as well. concepts that’s his team has employed: “We can either spin our wheels keeping a tight lid on standards, data, process, tools, etc… and continue to keep all our users at arm’s length within our enterprise, or we can open everything up and take on these new high level roles:
– Provide enabling infrastructure
– Share GIS expertise and education
– Promote GIS capabilities and agility”
Of course, the challenge would be mopping up blunders, mistakes, AGOL over-credit usage, “garbage in garbage out”, etc… The idea is however that it’s better to enable the enterprise and fix up the odd incidents than to manage based on those exceptions and get little done and bring little value to the organization. To me, this is the heart of this “split in GIS”. It is real, it is happening ..”

“I think there will be emphasis in both areas, the traditional GIS and the mobile. Have you ever been in an EOC? or dispatch. Have you ever been trying to see the big picture for a road project.”

“I think your perception of the divide is right on. The opposite ends of the table at the tech panel were significant, neither one better or worse than the other, but completely different. As one of the older traditional GIS people at the conference, I recognize that I need to adapt to the newer ideas about the industry. However, I do think that it applies predominantly to the delivery of the data and not to the creation of the data. There is still the need for people to take on the role of ensuring that each parcel, manhole, geologic unit, survey point, or whatever enters the data repository in a manner that does not degrade the quality of the data and by association the reputation of the industry. Definitely, an easier end user experience is a positive, but without quality data as the input, then we are serving a substandard product to the end users”

“I believe this is more of a cultural split than a technological. Although it may be represented by certain technologies (Esri vs. Google), the dichotomy is more representative of a split between those who produce data and those who (prepare interfaces to) consume it. Certainly “new GIS” (I don’t think most “new” folks even want to associate themselves with “GIS”) has plenty of data production capabilities (eg. ala VGI) and “old GIS” has plenty of consumption faces (eg. ArcGIS Online). But the dichotomy is largely from those whose primary purpose is respectively production or consumption. I don’t believe it is a real split, rather a growing pain. The industry always tries to differentiate internally (hey, that’s the basis of competition), but always ends up unifying over common issues (messaging the importance of geospatial information today to both business and government, etc.”

“Is GIS Splitting? No, but nothing ever stands still and GIS continues to evolve. We are coming from a time where GIS meant GIS specialists, and moving towards a time where GIS encompasses both specialists and a new group of people who understand the power of spatial. This new class of users understand the power of maps and spatial understanding, and are empowered by technology, but they may not know it as GIS.
Technology underpins both of these worlds, and in many ways that technology is the same. But expressed differently. In one case the GIS expert has the ability to fiddle with the dials and knobs to configure for a specific scenario. In the other case the user uses tools that make broader assumptions and give good results but are not scenario specific. Both worlds will continue to evolve and overlap each other. Just because a person is a GIS Expert doesn’t mean that want to understand all the dials and knobs on everything! They are happy to use the ‘easy button’ as well, but they may take it a bit further than just that tool.
A great example of this is map projections. Most people just want a good map projection that looks correct, and if pressed will want something that is appropriate for their data. However some people are experts in map projections and know that to get the best possible use of the map they should use a specific projection or tweak the parameters. We used to believe everyone had to understand map projections at a deep level, but now most people use defaults or use established standards for an area without feeling they have to understand why. (The argument around if someone should use a tool without understanding how it works is broader than GIS, and that same argument has been happening for 100′s of years as technology has progressed.)
That same progression of advancing the science yet also making it easily accessible is happening for data entry, data distribution, and analysis. The experts have a fundamental role in establishing the best use of this wonderful science so we can enable everyone else to be empowered by it. (But without giving them a loaded gun to easily hurt themselves!) The technology will co-evolve from both perspectives helping everyone. New ideas will come from both GIS Experts and this new class of spatial users. And the industry as a whole must listen to both.”

“The split/divide in GIS. I noticed it several years ago…specifically, when attending FOSS4G in Denver (2011). The folks driving the bus are not geographers/GISers. Funny how surveyors thought there was a fight to see who would “Control the GIS?” [cover or Professional Surveyor, 11/1999]. Heck, we didn’t control it then! There was never ‘control.’ But these innovative guys running with geo are fun and interesting (although not easy to have a conversation with). They are tech folks that don’t care about everything I learned as a geographer. What the map ‘looks like’ is of little consequence. The paramount importance is consumption. Thus, consumerization. If the data is consumed by average citizens via web or mobile AND results in an action, the geo-product is a success. Have you ever tried using a ‘print’ function in an app or even Google Maps api?

Q: Who cares about printing?
A: Only the people who have been working here longer than 10 years!

Development driven by consumer…data collection by consumer/user or Google…cartography minimized…analysis done as needed…wither large sections of conventional GIS? Think of all of those undergrads (by the thousands) whose careers begin in a shop digitizing features (street centerlines, building footprints, etc.). What will these new undergrads do now? Ever notice when you try to hire a programmer (GIS)…plenty of “Analysts” apply but VERY few actual programmers? Best advice for undergrad geographers: start with html/css/javascript!
No “Mad Men” today. People do not have secretaries who ‘type things up’ for them. Everyone (even the top dogs) use writing apps (Libre Office plug!). More technical…how many ‘drafter’ positions do you see advertised? Engineers use CAD tools themselves now. Consumers use Weatherbug (or similar) and can interpret radar themselves (just watch parents, smartphones ready, at their kid’s outdoor sporting event when the nasty clouds roll in!). Maps, good/bad/indifferent have been released to the world…time to get working on the ‘integration’ and ‘analytical’ waves for geo data. “

Agree? Disagree? Do you think we need to embrace a new approach to how we discuss, implement, and think about GIS?

We’ve taken a non traditional approach to GIS by building a mobile GIS framework, which simplifies developing GIS apps and integrating GIS with existing systems and platforms.

Let me know your thoughts at

Given the response to the original post: Is GIS Splitting, we have created an additional post of opinions and thoughts:Is GIS splitting? … what the experts think Part 2

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