Is GIS Splitting?

Is GIS splitting? And if it is, should we care?

Early in November 2014 I ran across a tweet asking “Is GIS Splitting?” Several thoughts collided in my brain when I saw this question, even more added to the crashing of light-bulbs in my head when I read the post. I had literally just left a meeting where a peer – though I’m sure he would not deign to label himself my peer – suggested no one even refers to “GIS” any longer. And, he seemed staggered and then very dismissive of my rebuttal. “You should google it. You’ll see I’m right,” he recommended. I had just spent the last three weeks doing just this so I knew he was incorrect.

Sidenote: People should not make nonsense comments easily disproven by a google search, especially when one has a Ph.D in a field one is stating no longer purports to use an acronym it has carried for 40+ years. Furthermore, one should not make nonsense comments easily disproven by a google search during a meeting of your peers.

But, making nonsense comments is not the basis of this post, neither is taking a peer to task about their supposed knowledge of the chosen field of everyone in the room. If you detect a peeved tone, you would be correct. While his comment was directed at me, my peeved-ness is not directly related to the comment being directed at me. No, I’m irritated because rather than my peer acknowledging “GIS” is still pertinent, and will be for a while, he elected to paint himself further in corner and made the choice to turn our committee discussion into a personal challenge on his authority and experience, which further encouraged us to question his entire rationale. In other words, I left the meeting with one immediate thought: “Why can he not see we are not provoking him, we are simply seeking a solution to a mundane concern? Why turn this into a question of authority when you aren’t even the committee chair, or the department chair?’

I did not lose sleep over this question. Nothing I could remedy, really, more of psychological question about why people choose to react the way they do, and in ways that work against their own professional demeanor, damage their image and create a perception they are uncooperative and have problems working to consensus. In academia this can be a career-killer. Few administrators will appoint those personalities to leadership positions, locking them into a professorships with little future of advancement. Once in a while these personalities slip through, typically resulting in horrible consequences for faculty, staff, resulting in impacts on student education and administration. Everything, at some point, will trickle down to affect students.

The larger question, of using “geospatial” rather than “GIS” acknowledges the topic in the recent “Is GIS Splitting” post. The timeliness of these events made an impression on me in the broader sense because of the conflict arising during our meeting.

My peer was trying to make a point no organization refers to “GIS” any longer. The term is done, we are beyond GIS. His point was the both the field and discipline are moving towards the use of “Geospatial,” and “GIS” has been relegated to the history books. In all fairness, he does have a point. GIS as a term is facing some competition from other terms and acronyms. In all fairness, though, the point is incomplete. The Death of GIS has not arrived, and neither has “GIScience” nor “geospatial” supplanted “GIS” in the literature, in the software, in any field, or any discipline.

I may need to define “GIS” for my non-GIS readers. GIS is an acronym which can be defined in a few ways, and therein lies grounds for controversy. GIS can stand for “geographic information systems.” Before I move on to the other two definitions, let me break this down further. “Geographic” means geography, and I tell my students geography is “nouns – people, places, things, and ideas and their spatial distribution.” Doesn’t matter where it is, could be Kentucky, could be your brain, could be the Universe. Everything has a place, a position, and reason for being there.

I’m not being funny about saying geography is a “brain” or “the Universe.” Neurologists often talk about the geography of the brain when undertaking studies to map where certain brain functions occur. A person with a brain tumor might have their brain mapped in 3-D in order to get a dose of radiation to a specific place in the brain.

Being a fan of cosmology, cosmologists have been actively mapping our Universe in 3-dimensional space.

Geography tries to answer two fundamental questions: 1. Where is it? and 2. Why is it there? Sometimes, you will see this defined as “site” (the where) and “situation” (the why.) Typically, “where” is a much easier question to answer; “why” is much more fun to work on and far more challenging to address.

“Information” means data, perhaps knowledge. In absolute terms, geographers refer to information as “attributes.” Attributes are things like size, shape, color, distance, area, volume, temperature, elevation, number of cellphone users, number of people aged 15 to 19, marital status, ethnic group. The list is quite extensive.

“Systems” refers to the complex environment related to handing geographic information. Systems include the computers, hard drives, graphic cards, memory; includes the mapping or image processing software; includes the network backbone; includes any database system used to for storing and retrieving information. Additionally, systems include the people, the GIS Technicians, the Census workers, the biologists collecting field data, the GIS Analysts, the database managers. The systems-side of GIS can be as simple as one person sitting in an office running ESRI‘s ArcGIS Desktop, or MapInfo, or GRASS on a decent desktop computer. The systems-side of GIS can be as complex Google Maps and Google Earth, whereby large numbers of staff are busying writing computer code to stitch satellite imagery together so everything looks nice in Google Maps or Google Earth. But, don’t forget, some staff are keeping the servers running, the databases functioning, the network from collapsing. These are Enterprise GIS environments, big, complex mapping and analysis installations. Just so you know, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), the U.S. Department of State, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture all have their own big, enterprise-grade geographic information systems environments.

Increasingly, many academic departments, government agencies, and government contractors may replace “systems” with “science,” making geographic information sciences. Sciences connotes the technology behind the systems. Sciences may involve programming languages, like Python. Sciences entail the techniques and methodologies used by common software packages. Techniques include such things as how to find a “hot spot,” a location of some importance, maybe high crime, maybe high sales, maybe high-test scores. The science may involve considerable math, such as finding the shortest route, or fastest route. Math is necessary for measuring sizes, distances, or running statistical treatments against the data to find significance, means, medians, and standard deviations. Science is involved in the technology of managing file sizes, of efficiently storing data in a database, and performing quick retrievels.

Geographic Information Systems can tolerate a variety of users with different skill levels. GISystems can involve an unsophisticated user simply using convenient data to make some variables using a web browser. Training might take an hour or two. On the other end of the spectrum, GISystems can involve very sophisticated users who run large databases, manage web servers, handle dozens to hundreds of users, manage a complex network, and may have several custom applications to address the needs of both intranet clients and extranet clients.

GIScience is more about improving the technology. By improving, I mean figuring out ways to solve problems or using disparate bits of technology in new ways. For instance, a few civilian drones are capable of collecting LiDAR data. Now, scientists have a means of performing surface analysis unheard of as few as five years ago. Mankind has new and better ways of analyzing surface features to improve floodplain mapping, to discover archaeological sites, for managing timber, or for search-and-rescue. New embedded GPS technologies allow companies to provide services unavailable a few years ago. But, we aren’t limited to only the technology but also advances in made in programming languages, the integration of mathematics and statistics for digging deep into data, and the use of multicore processors to augment the number crunching necessary for making highly functional map applications. One doesn’t have to look too hard into GIS software to find the science. Performing cost analysis, calculating sun angle, slope, aspect, or regression analysis are common functions hiding just below the menu bar.

A third term commonly seen is “geospatial.” At first blush, “geospatial” sounds cool, like a really important word. Maybe because the word begins with the Latin “geo.” I don’t know; throw a Latin prefix onto the beginning of any word and that word instantly becomes better. But, geospatial is sort of redundant if you ask me. “Spatial” essentially means “having space” or “having to do with space.” When “geo-” is added, we are merely limiting our examination of space to the Earth, and how a peculiar phenomena is spread-out on Earth. We might think of geospatial as a subset of spatial, then. We could make comments about the geospatial distribution of uranium; we could not make comments about the geospatial distribution of black holes. We could, however, make comments about the spatial distribution of black holes. And, in fact, watch the show “Strip the Cosmos” and precisely that topic is covered.

I have an ESRI Storymap featuring Women Nobel Laureates [link].

Ok – we have a working knowledge of GIS, GIScience, and geospatial. A bit of hyperbole, maybe, but not really for the uninitiated. Now, back to the premise of the post: Is GIS Splitting?

The short answer is, Yes, GIS is splitting. I don’t really like “splitting.” GIS is certainly evolving, and has evolved faster in the last 5 years than perhaps in the 10 years previous. Why would I say this?

The biggest change in GIS arrived when desktop computing became common in the mid-1990s. When GIS moved from UNIX-based systems to PC/Intel-based desktop computers, an enormous transition took place. Software once accessible to a mere few due to the complexity of UNIX could now be placed upon a desktop and made accessible to 10x’s as many people. From about 1995 – 2007 desktop advances keep GIS moving forward. So, what changed?

In 2007, Apple released the first generation of iPhone. I might argue this signature event heralded the beginning of a new age in GIS. With the apps available on the iPhone, such as Google Earth ported to iOS. Later, Apple would develop and embed its own map application with the iPhone iOS. As smartphones grew in popularity, competitors to Apple, Samsung, Motorola, and Nokia would hack out improvements to Android OS. Improvements to Android OS would allow smart phone makers to take advantages of complementary advances in technologies embedded in smartphones, like GPS, barometers, gyroscopes, and high megapixel cameras.

With GPS technology built-in to almost every computing device sold today, and Android OS essentially free, the play field for creation, innovation, and entrepreneurship has expanded more than many prognosticators might have predicted. Kids sitting at home can create a smart phone app. High schools have coding weekends to teach basic coding skills and help those with programming skills to enhanced those skills. Several of these coding events build upon the use of the embedded GPS coupled with online mapping applications. Apps like Yelp can help you find a nearby restaurant. Apps like Tinder or Grindr help people “hook up” with people in their vicinity. FindMyiPhone is an app helping people find their lost iPhones.

Some consumers of mobile device technologies are technicians and scientists. Engineers need GPS-enabled mapping devices to manage construction projects. New roadways, interstates, interchanges are designed and built using mapping technology. Farmers use mapping to increase agricultural efficiency. Companies like Georgia-Pacific manage timber stands with GIS and GPS. UPS, FedEX, and Yellow Freight use GIS to manage the routing of their drivers and packages. Restaurants like Applebees and Bob Evans use GIS to determine what towns and neighborhoods to choose for locations. Anyone who has watched “Bar Rescue” will see Jon Taffer roll-out a large map showing the location of the current bar tragedy, locations of competing bars, and in some cases will showcase local demographics, like the age of people in nearby neighborhoods.

Is GIS Splitting? Yes, if you consider mitosis as splitting, and it is. And, like mitosis, GIS is splitting because it is growing and maturing. Google Earth has made elementary GIS accessible to anyone with a computer. Microsoft Bing! maps offers some basic GIS tools. ESRI offers a couple lightweight GIS apps. ArcGIS Online allows anyone to create an account and begin building online mapping apps. Publish those maps using a template from a collection of pre-made templates and you have a “storymap.” Google Earth has a *beta version of Tour Builder available. Tour Builder allows anyone to build a collection of related places and include videos, pictures, or related websites.

Check out a simply Google Earth tour I created using TourBuilder *beta

King and Maxwell map, based on David Baldacci’s novel

Yes, GIS is splitting, splitting like an amoeba into two amoebas, then four, then eight, then 16, and so on. As a matter of fact, I think it is even bigger than I’ve let on. Every cell phone made in the last two years has a GPS chip which gives the phone’s position in space, i.e. it is “spatially-enabled.” Tablets are spatially enabled, e.g. iPads and Android tablets. Maybe even your car, if you have dashboard mapping system, or if you have Onstar you probably have a GPS chip on-board your vehicle.

GIS, and by reasonable extension, geography, is enmeshed in our lives. Geography is infused in our lives, in our environment. GIS is the technological embodiment of our geography. So, while we might debate about how information should be managed, the Bell of GIS cannot be “unrung;” the technological manifestation of geography is now in the hands of anyone desirous of learning one of the most important skills of the 21st century.


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