Another day. Another geospatial question to pose and explore. Is Geospatial Leaving GIS Behind?

What an odd question to ask. By geospatial don’t we mean GIS? Aren’t they one and the same? This blog post is actually a continuation of our discussion yesterday in Maps. Loved and Hated!

Is Geospatial Leaving GIS Behind?

Let’s begin this conversation with a simple picture:

Starting at the top of the diagram:

1. Everything once began with a paper map. In fact in many cases everything still starts with a PDF/paper map. Somebody has a question “Where are my real estate listings in Salt Lake City?” A quickly generated PDF/paper map answers that question very quickly.

2. Next came simple digital maps. Better known as web maps. These are interactive maps we access via our computer or mobile. The advantages include:

  • We can ask questions of the map since it is interactive. A PDF is static. So “How do I get from the airport to my hotel” Google Maps made simple interactive maps popular.
  • Data is (should be) current. A PDF is potentially out of date as soon as it is printed

Web maps can answer one or many questions and are powered by a mix of geospatial technologies including GIS.

3. Then along came advanced digital maps. Many (but not all) of these web maps are powered by GIS. There are many flavors of advanced web maps. They are fundamentally designed to answer multiple questions or to solve more advanced problems.

4. At the bottom of the left fork of the diagram is geospatial analytics. Very much the home of GIS. Realistically targeted at and used by data scientists, business analysts, and GIS professionals. Geospatial analytics has a long history.

5. Lastly there is the right fork of the above diagram: focused apps which include a map. These are the new kids on the block. And this is from where much of the geospatial excitement and hoopla emanates. This is Uber and the driving speed app discussed in Maps. Loved and Hated! on and on. These are highly focused apps which answer a single question.

Answering One Question or Many

PDF/paper maps are generated with a single focus. Ski maps are a wonderful example. Often artist renditions, they answer the “where should I ski today question”. The Uber app and map answers the “where is my Uber cab?” question. The driving speed app my wife likes answers the “where and when is our daughter speeding? The map is incidental (but vital) to the app. But the app is not map-centric. Story maps have become very popular. Why? They are focused and include maps, but are not map-centric.

In contrast a simple web map is map-centric. That means the map is the focus. Take our Airbnb “where are local things to do” web map. It answers the “where should we go tonight?” question. The map requires panning, zooming, tapping on map markers, gentle spatial thinking. One step deeper, but still simple is this commercial real estate parcel finder app. This answers the “where is my parcel of interest?” Then there’s this asset management app which is a more advanced web map, answering the where and what of fixing a problem. Finally there is geospatial analytics. The sweet spot of GIS. Largely the bastion of those trained in geospatial science.

So why would I ask Is Geospatial Leaving GIS Behind?

Geospatial today is a large and growing universe. There are new players and new applications of the technology appearing almost daily: Uber and self driving cars respectively are two widely discussed examples. GIS is now a small part of a larger whole. And as Will Cadell points out, it’s now a far more competitive space. At its core GIS has always offered ‘more advanced, multi-answer web maps and spatial analytics’. But GIS continues to struggle to cross the chasm to popular use and acceptance. It remains a niche technology used largely by its traditional (public sector) client base. Requiring in-house GIS experts.

Simple applications of geospatial technology is where we are seeing significant use and adoption. These are applications which answer a single question and (often) require limited spatial thinking. From our discussion above, these are focused single use apps and simple web maps.

While the geospatial sector expands, GIS remains narrowly focused. Somehow stuck in the past. And it is changing far too slowly. Will GIS languish in an ever more competitive niche, or break out and grow with the geospatial sector as a whole?

Only time will tell!

What do you think?

Author: Staff Writer

S
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