The world of GIS is rapidly changing. New opportunities are emerging. Many old, inflexible business models are being challenged. As a company, we’ve been caught up in those changes. That has moved us into a period of self-reflection. Who are we? What are we?
Confessions of a GIS Consulting Business
GIS consulting has long been a thriving business. Most consultants worked with public sector customers: state, local, Federal. Good consultants were in demand and hard to find. General software companies were often the fall-back for many organizations. Too often we were called in to clean-up the mess left by non-GIS specialists. But problem-solving is what we have always loved, simple or complex. We went about our work with gusto.
Ten years ago we were stuck in a world of Flex (see Flash) GIS apps which were complex, and overloaded with tools. A nightmare to build, extend and most importantly use. GIS solution providers were trying to recreate desktop GIS apps for the web. We still cringe at the memory.
As a company, we focused on the simple. Building easy to use extensible web and mobile GIS applications. We took pride, for example, in being one of the first organizations to build offline enabled mobile GIS apps. Looking back, we now realise most of our clients were early adopters. But, like many of our peers, ultimately we were technology focused. Sure we could talk about the path from problem-to-solution, but often that ended up being a GIS vernacular filled technology conversation. At that time we were working with GIS departments, so GIS-nerd talk needed no translator.
Then the world changed.
Mobile and cloud-computing appeared. And exploded. With built-in GPS, mobile devices created a new demand for answers to geo-questions. The consumer market led the charge. Maps and geo-technology moved from niche to centre-stage. Uber and Pokemon Go became overnight sensations, powered by geotech. The geo-space suddenly became very relevant. New organizations appeared and new tools were released. Open source in particular became more discussed and more relevant, as organizations began to build out their own geotech stacks.
That left GIS in a very difficult place.
From once owning the maps and geo-space, GIS was becoming marginalized. The main GIS vendors began scrambling to remain relevant. They had never experienced serious competition in their stronghold sectors and were ill-equipped to enter and compete in new markets.
And their reaction to these market changes had a profound effect on GIS consultants
GIS software vendors moved from building engines to also building vehicles. Suddenly a slew of web and mobile GIS apps appeared, built by vendors themselves. So called commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) software solutions. Configure not custom became the mantra. New cloud-based GIS platforms were launched. GIS was marketed as easy, DIY, no need for experts. By accident the GIS vendors marginalised and (mistakenly) lessened the importance of GIS consultants.
By accident the GIS vendors shot themselves in the foot
GIS consultants were forced into re-evaluation. Should they remain GIS specialists, or include other geotechnologies? Do they remain aligned with specific vendors or widen their partnerships? Should they drop custom development, in favour of COTS setup and configuration? Among many GIS consultants, this re-evaluation is ongoing.
The geotechnology space is undergoing enormous growth. Chaos and opportunity intermixed. In the GIS space today’s marginalised GIS consultant world will move back to valued and in-demand, as GIS vendors are forced into change. Competition will grow. Though consumers have led the geotech charge, commercial organizations are not far behind. Past, clumsy attempts to apply GIS business and technical models in the private sector have failed. Adoption has been slow. That will soon change, led by smaller, hungry GIS and geotechnology companies.
The world of GIS consultants is in flux. Many are struggling. Many are in the process of change. We see this short term pain as long term gain for those who can weather the storm and move forward.
At WebMapSolutions, our re-evaluation continues. Our business model is under scrutiny; in the process of undergoing dramatic changes. We will cover this in a future post.