The Changing Nature of GIS

With geospatial information becoming more and more ubiquitous, what is the future of GIS as a term—and as a profession?


The notion of the geographic information systems (GIS) profession is becoming increasingly hard to pin down to one point on a map. From one direction, a flood of geospatial data has stressed the abilities of traditional GIS suites to process information and respond to queries. From another, the rise of open-source tools has disrupted the market for traditional systems. And demand continues to increase for geospatially-sourced insight.

These converging factors are causing some industry leaders to ask: Does the term “GIS” need to be retired?

“We’ve gone from GIS priests to GIS practitioners,” said Todd Bacastow, a geography professor at Pennsylvania State University. “Before, you were sort of the priest, you knew the magic to make this work. Now these folks are just practitioners.”

“Spatial data is just another type of data,” summed up Linda Stevens, founder and managing partner of the San Francisco-based geospatial marketing firm 51by1. “There’s so much data that people don’t even know what to do with it.”

Old to New, Big to Small

Where processing and analyzing geospatial data was once a task for dedicated workstations that amounted to a full-time occupation for the professionals who operated them, that work is now likely to happen as one routine among many on a standard computer, tablet, or phone.

“You see veteran GIS professionals saying, ‘I can’t afford to pay a quarter of a million dollars for a site license,’” Stevens said. “You can now do geo-coding with Google for free.”

The transition evokes the computer industry’s shift from mainframe to desktop computers—as well as the more recent migration from laptops to mobile devices. And as with those earlier evolutions, fitting the tool to the task and fitting the task into a budget have played a significant role.

Or as Stevens put it, “These developers who are looking for tools they can use to build stuff—they don’t have a ton of money.”

Esri, the vendor most associated with traditional GIS workflows, has followed this trend from standalone suites to web services as well.

“Over the last five years, our software-as-a-service offering, ArcGIS Online, has grown to over 6.6 million users,” said Dirk Gorter, Esri’s director of product management, via email. They generate some 50,000 new maps, apps, and layers each day.

Though Gorter did not break down how much of Esri’s business now derives from services versus traditional desktop installations, he did say Esri still finds “healthy demand” for its top-of-the-line ArcGIS Pro suite.

Stevens—who until 2014 worked as Esri’s chief marketing officer—also pointed to the rise of open-source tools for geospatial analysis, as well as the ecosystem of developers around this software. She noted this growth has allowed the emergence of a different business model: support services for companies using open-source libraries and applications, as provided by newer firms such as Boundless.

Different Skills

The immediate upside of the transition from standalone suites to web-based tools is faster solutions. Bacastow cited a classroom exercise he’s run, in which students have to piece together the last movements of a Baltimore-based attorney who was found dead in Lancaster, Penn., in 2003.

He said work that typically took hours in Esri’s ArcGIS desktop suite only requires a fraction of the time in ArcGIS Online.

“I’ve had students, first-year students, who did it in 15 minutes,” Bacastow said.

But moving existing GIS data and applications to these new web services and tools isn’t a copy-and-paste job. As an organization transitioning from a traditional LAN architecture to cloud services cannot expect to do so over a long weekend, switching to open-source tools can be even more complicated.

“Implementing an open-source GIS approach has traditionally demanded DIY capabilities that make it beyond the reach of many organizations, and the transition to an open system often required an abrupt, rip-and-replace effort,” said Andy Dearing, CEO of Boundless, via email.

According to Esri’s Gorter, complex workflows with advanced analytics are still better suited for desktop applications.

“Migration is more than just software, it’s training, workflows, and investment by the whole organization for change,” he said.

The vast increase in geographically- tagged data also demands a high degree of data literacy, lest people plug the wrong details into a web tool and be fooled by a pretty-looking result.

“The thing that’s worrisome to me,” Stevens said, “is you can take two datasets, and with the click of a button, overlay them. But you have no idea if that result is valid. How old is the information? Is it still relevant?”

Having so many newer, web-based tools be open-source—for instance, the community-maintained OpenStreetMap project—can further complicate a move from legacy GIS tools. Confusion may be more likely for professionals used to the strict boundaries and top-down direction of commercial licensing who may think of open-source development as its polar opposite.

“People think of open-source as a free-for-all, but it’s not,” Stevens said. “It’s very organized.”

This map highlights the changing power generation fuel mix in the United States. Maps showing the spatial distribution of power generation document the regional effects fuel costs and consumer trends have on the changing landscape. (Credit: Esri)

She advised traditional GIS practitioners to get acquainted with web-based and open-source ecosystems by attending events such as the FOSS4G conferences hosted by the Open Source Geospatial Foundation.

A benefit of this evolution, Dearing said, is the opportunity to do more than hand off geographic data to decision-makers.

“The trade will change, where you will no longer have geospatial analysts only making maps; the trade is shifting to have analysts perform what their title says—analysis,” Dearing wrote.

For those who don’t evolve, there’s risk of occupational irrelevance.

“Someone will take those processes—it could be Google, it could be somebody else—will take those processes and build them into something that doesn’t require the study of a priest to use them,” Bacastow said. “The number of people you’ll need for the priesthood will diminish.”

Stevens noted one way that situation can resolve itself.

“There’s going to be a lot of people who will be retiring soon,” she said.

Geospatial educators face their own challenge in keeping up, Bacastow noted.

“By the time this trickles down to educators, we’re oftentimes the last ones to identify what’s happening to a market and how we change what we teach,” he said.

A Name Change for a Game Change?

The GIS profession’s ongoing transition can be seen in the micro-geography of office buildings.

“You [used to] have a GIS office, and everybody would go to the GIS office to have spatial things done,” Bacastow said. “That is gone.”

The nomenclature is changing as well. “GIS” as a term for this profession and practice is ebbing in favor of newer phrases such as “location intelligence” and the more generic “business intelligence.” Google’s Ngram Book Viewer, which tracks the incidence of words and phrases in published books, shows that use of “GIS” peaked in 2002; “location intelligence” and “business intelligence” have taken off since 1998 but still remain less popular than the older term.

The magazine GIS Professional announced in October that it would end its printed edition, a decision editor Niall Conway blamed in part on the decline of GIS as a recognized term. “As maps have become more mainstream and accessible, GIS has become a less easy-to-define field to explain to other non-GIS folk and to, therefore, promote as the discipline which it once was,” he wrote.

Gorter said Esri now sees distinct markets for traditional GIS, location intelligence, and spatial business intelligence. Industries such as finance, natural resources, and utilities are particularly likely to opt for Esri’s service offerings.

Bacastow suggested GIS may soon no longer be its own specialty.

“All those concepts will be absorbed someplace,” he said, and warned, “someone will lose, and that’s a person who had their profession tagged as GIS.”

Stevens posited the traditional definition has earned an honorable retirement. She compared it to database giant Oracle’s transition from being known as a relational-database vendor to a company that builds applications. In GIS, the same thing is happening—even as the fundamental concepts remain as relevant as ever.

“There are still GIS professionals who are building data,” she said, adding that the description for their work will vary by industry and client. But what do you call their work?

“You have location intelligence, which is more for business. You have LBS, which is location-based services. I don’t know if I have a preferred [term].”

By any moniker, these capabilities aren’t going away, and the demand for them is only increasing.

“It’s going to be part of everything we do,” Stevens said.

But the name or names the capabilities will eventually bear are yet to be determined.

Featured Image: This Esri map shows the density of cooling towers in New York City. By mapping data to hex bins, data clusters and hot spots are revealed. (Credit: Esri)

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