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View from the North - GIS: Point Solution or Platform?

“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”
- Max Planck, German quantum theorist and Nobel Prize winner

One thing I’ve learned from speaking to a variety of customers is that organizations and individuals have very different views of the role GIS can fulfil. Some see GIS as fundamentally a mapping system that brings the power of data visualization to solve pressing problems, while others consider it a highly specialized tool that brings a unique analytical perspective—the “Where” factor—to better understand everything that happens on the planet. And then there are those who see GIS as a system that can enrich everything their organization does by adding a geographical component.

These views of GIS are all correct. However, I have found that the way organizations “do” GIS—the way they organize, build and use it—falls into two patterns:

  • GIS as a point solution

  • GIS as a platform

GIS as a Point Solution

Using GIS as a point solution is very common. It’s where GIS is tailored to solve the problem at hand. In the past when an organization had a specific problem, they would try to solve it by “talking” it with GIS. Once the problem was resolved, GIS was linked to it, and it ended there.  

For example, what do you do when someone in your organization comes up to you with requirements such as “I have to manage my forest stands. I have to optimize my fleet. I have to perform inspections in the field.”?

The organization would typically select a GIS with a rich set of tools and capabilities, and then selectively use a small number of these tools in a repeatable and efficient manner. This isn’t to say that the GIS will only be used to address that single business problem. The same system might also be used to maintain parcel fabric and make planning maps. However, these two workflows are usually siloed—with GIS usage limited to only a few departments or technicians.

While GIS becomes indispensable for those who are engaged with it, the rest of the organization has little or no idea how the technology is being used, let alone how it could be developed further. The value of GIS is there, but relatively localized.

GIS as a Platform

The newer pattern of GIS deployment refrains from limiting this technology to a simple set of tools supporting a few workflows; it underlines GIS as a strategic capability that empowers everything the organization does. 

GIS as a platform is highly distributed—deployed on-premises, in the cloud and across devices—and highly connected with other systems to provide efficient access to data and tools. Tools are simple but not simplistic, and are easily accessible to the entire organization and its stakeholders. GIS technology takes many shapes and forms to meet a wide range of requirements—from high-end desktop GIS to easy-to-use web apps or simple GIS functionality embedded into existing systems.

In this pattern, the value of GIS is recognized by the entire organization because all stakeholders benefit from its capabilities. The platform doesn’t just empower a few points of workflow here and there, but infuses many workflows across several teams.

The Logical Evolution or Extinction

Taking up GIS as a strategic capability may seem like the fantasy of geogeek enthusiasts, but it also represents the next important, logical step in the evolution of GIS.

I’m frequently asked what the future of the GIS professional is. Who knows?

But, what I truly believe is this:  If GIS is perceived as a highly specialized tool coupled to a small number of workflows, then our future is uncertain.  However, if GIS is used to support and improve just about everything the entire organization does, well, the smart money bets on the latter.

A Platform Then!

While it’s easier to visualize GIS point solutions, we need to assert GIS as a critical capability of the entire organization. For GIS to be embraced as a platform, we need to geo-enable every workflow and find ways to make it easy and relevant for everyone to use the technology.

Instead of being fearful about putting the power to make a map into the hands of everyone in our organizations, we should enhance learning opportunities, make data easily accessible, further build on GIS functionalities and create more user-friendly apps that enable all to share resources and knowledge.

Going back to the Max Planck quote, as GIS professionals, it is no longer our job to simply “do” GIS but rather “empower” others with GIS. Let’s explore GIS as more than a point solution and help GIS evolve for the better.

About the Author

Chris North is the Director of Technology Adoption for Esri Canada. With over 20 years of experience in geomatics, Chris is an accomplished GIS professional who brings an in-depth understanding of enterprise GIS and technology trends to the company. He has a master's degree in GIS from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and an undergraduate degree in geography from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Chris is also a graduate of the Cartography Program at Sir Sandford Fleming College, Ontario. He is the recipient of several industry awards and continues to be involved with many industry groups.

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