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What is GIS? Why after 30+ years, do I feel like the field has an identity crisis?

Posted by smathermather on October 27, 2012

A few of great articles/presentation have come out recently(ish) on the nature of geospatial industry identity.  3 of note:

1) Paul Ramsey’s talk: Spatial IT & the Spatial Web

2) Brian Timoney’s post: If Mapping is So Big, Why Does GIS Feel So Small?

3) James Fee’s short, but (apparently) inflammatory post: Goes Without Saying

These three sources are highlighting aspects of GIS/Geospatial industry’s shifting identity.

Here I summarize their questions, or the questions they are trying to answer thusly:

  1. What is GIS?
  2. Why after 30+ years, do I feel like the field has an identity crisis?
  3. Does this mean all Geospatial folks get to drive a convertible sports car, and act out all the parts of being in a midlife-crisis?
  4. Do I feel this way, ’cause in a fixed point arithmetic system, rounding to the nearest tens, half the time my age rounds to 40?  Do I get a convertible sports car and get to act out all the parts of being in a midlife-crisis?

These questions and fewer will be addressed here!

Now, there are a few things fueling shifts in the GeoSpatial industry.  Notably, ESRI, for all their billions of dollars, brilliant (if un-hip), closed-source, and patented software, huge (and smallish and mediumish) government contracts is having an identity crisis.  That makes everyone nervous.  They are moving into the services (not just the proprietary licensing) portion of the sector, and streamlining workflows that before required technicians and analysts to complete, so they are directly competing with their a) resellers and b) users.  That is a scary change indeed.  (Couldn’t find James Fee’s coverage of this topic, but he covers it well, as ESRI started to move openly in these directions).

More importantly in the shifts that are taking place, ESRI is no longer the exclusive GeoSpatial Brain Trust.  Once MapServer started, PostGIS was a natal spatial extension, JTS came to life, and GEOS came to underpin PostGIS simple features, no multi-billion dollar thumb was going to hold back the waters.

Brian, Paul and James touch on aspects of the changes a-foot, whether it’s Brian or James’ “Get your stuff together kids, or the mallet will hit you hard” or Paul’s talk, which sets a direction for the industry, the message is the same– the industry is changing quickly.  As to what that change means, I diverge slightly from Paul.  Brian’s post I’ll address in a separate post.  Fee is just right in stating essentially GIS analysts are programmers, should act like programmers, and thus learn Python.  I won’t add to his message.  (Although, there are more choices.  What about Ruby on Rails, the geospatial version.  Oh, yeah.  There is a Rails API for CartoDB… .  Anyway.  Python is one option among many.  Some slackers keep relying on BASH for their flow control… .)

1) Paul Ramsey’s talk: Spatial IT & the Spatial Web

Paul, as usual, gives a salient analysis of the future and value of geospatial services in the context of the web, and in the process makes the assertion (to quote the OpenGeo summary): “that the future is Spatial IT professionals working on the Spatial Web”.

I have thought a lot about the question of whether GIS is “spatial IT”, and the longer I think about it, the more I think, “Ya, kinda.”  Certainly, the better I get to know my colleagues in IT and vice versa, the more they suggest that, “Really smathermather, you should be in IT”.  Should I?  I am not so sure.

Why am I not so sure?  For one, GIS is arguably a technical twist on landscape architecture, planning, and design, laced with spatial infrastructure (operational) support.  The reason the whole cacophony of GIS approaches fall quite well into “Planning” as a discipline (but are usually structurally hindered by such an approach) is because of this shared root.  So, saying GIS should be in IT is a little like saying Marketing and Graphic Design should be in IT because they so heavily use computers these days; or the opposite: IT should be in Treasury/Finance, etc., because those were the first groups to need computers.  GIS is Planning technically embodied.  So what does that make it?  IT?  Planning?  Engineering? Finance?

And why then the artificial distinction between GIS and Planning?  If GIS is Planning technically embodied, should they not be conflated?  Two reasons why not.  One:  The efficacy of GIS can be hindered by slavishly tying it to Planning in large part because there is wider and deeper applicability to GIS than to Planning’s typical functions.  Lemma:  Paul is partially right.  Insofar as GIS is or should be spatial IT, GIS is a different beast than the disciplines that birthed it.  Two: As different as it is, the best GIS (or spatial IT, or whatever), is that which uses technology as a tool for leadership through enabling better communication, better and more timely information, and information management that enables organizations, individuals, and enterprises to act more intelligently (sounds like an ESRI advertisement).  This applies to TriMet’s new multimodal transportation tool, OpenGeo’s demo of improved NHD editing, Chris Holmes theoretical augmentation of this NHD model, and other projects like Ride the City.  This applies to OpenStreetMap.  This makes it squarely a Planning exercise.  However, in my experience, planners typically begrudgingly accept GIS in the context of leadership.  GIS is a technical problem to be solved once the decision makers set the direction.  In seeing GIS as a tool, Planning tends to treat GIS domain experts as tools.

So, is/should GIS be Spatial IT?  I think we can say that by extension to the above, great GIS deepens and broadens the role of planning (through enabling better communication, blaa blaa blaa) to operational support by means of spatial IT.  Or more precisely:

“So, is/should GIS be Spatial IT?”

“Ya, kinda, but it’s a lot more fun when it’s a really great (and slightly disruptive– bad connotations aside) planning tool.”

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9 Responses to “What is GIS? Why after 30+ years, do I feel like the field has an identity crisis?”

  1. Juan Tobar said

    Reblogged this on geoDemesne and commented:
    Every “GIS” professional needs to read the three linked posts by Paul Ramsey, Brian Timoney, and James Fee NOW! Very interesting post on the state of GIS and spatial technologies.

  2. [...] GIS is becoming an ambiguous term nowadays as its mixed being called spatial and seems to be having an identity crisis, I thought it was about time that someone reminded us that GIS has its roots in Geography. Dr. [...]

  3. [...] What is GIS? Why after 30+ years, do I feel like the field has an identity crisis? [...]

  4. Tom said

    Using GIS is for planners. Getting it working is for someone in GIS and that involves a lot of IT.

  5. [...] like there is lots of discussion about GIS having an identity crisis – again. As gravity changes and the oceans tides come and go, this discussion has been [...]

  6. I don’t think GIS is having an identity crisis, I think more and more GIS people are realizing that the perceptions of GIS have become overly limiting. Geography is an incredibly broad discipline but for some reason we started defining our roles through GIS. For many years GIS has been that specialized program that needs experts to run it. Today’s technology makes using it so much easier — such that everyone can make a map and everyone can create geospatial data. While there are still issues with using multiple projections, ArcGIS (for example) hides it all in the background by on-the fly re-projections. Google Earth (for example) makes comparing historical imagery a snap. Bing geocodes addresses in a snap — and will auto-correct mistakes as well. Users don’t NEED to know geography to use the software. All of this technology is causing us in the GeoSpatial Industry to question what we do.

    Why do we use the GIS moniker to define our jobs anyway? Perhaps -that- was a mistake and is leading to identity issues. Would we be having this discussion if we realized ourselves as Geographers with specialized GIS skills? Would GIS be more clear if we were Information Specialists with expertise in GIS? The last few years I’ve understood more and more that the term GIS narrowly defines my expertise to both myself and my customers. I have specialized skills in geospatial information, but I want to be defined as a Geographer first.

    Where should/can we be having this discussion?

  7. [...] What is GIS? Why after 30+ years, do I feel like the field has an identity crisis? [...]

  8. Chris Spoerri said

    We have to remember: GIS is just a tool and as such is part of the IT (in my eyes). On the other hand, we have the GIS expert, which knows how to use the tool, do the complex analysis, etc. These experts don’t need to be part of IT department. Btw. the same pattern you can observe in other areas, i.e. the finance departments don’t maintain their own IT system, but they are still the once calculating the budget and all the other “fun” financial stuff.

    I guess the problem is not a identity crises, but rather that we are not special anymore. We need to share our cool tools, we have to play along with otherwise (aka follow the IT guidelines). This in return means, that we loose our freedom to act the way we want. At the same time, this provides us with many new opportunities: finally we can play with the big boys, since we are able to add value to the business through integrating with other business system and processes.

    So for me, GIS takes it a notch up and becomes even cooler and more interesting to work with!

  9. […] GIS is becoming an ambiguous term nowadays as its mixed being called spatial and seems to be having an identity crisis, I thought it was about time that someone reminded us that GIS has its roots in Geography. Dr. […]

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