What we think of as “GIS software” has certainly seen its fair share of change and evolution. We see GIS software patterns of use on personal computers, on mobile devices, in web browsers, embedded in drones and autonomous vehicles. We even see GIS software running happily in the background without any human intervention.
GIS Patterns of Use
One pattern that has been a constant throughout the history of GIS is the notion of “desktop GIS”. I’m using the term desktop GIS in a generic sense (note the lower-case “d”). What I am referring to here is the pattern of a trained GIS professional (again note the lower-case “p”) sitting in front of a robust package of GIS software installed on a personal computer. I include ArcMap, ArcGIS Pro, QGIS and other tools in this pattern.
This got me thinking. Why has this pattern continued? How has it changed? Is it still going to be a common pattern in the future?
I’ve spoken to many individuals who predict that desktop GIS is “dead”. That everything will be and should be done in the cloud. Certainly, it’s impressive how far cloud GIS has come in such a short period of time. When I look at tools like ArcGIS Online, ArcGIS Velocity and ArcGIS Image for ArcGIS Online, I see deep, sophisticated tools that run against massive datasets with minimal requirements from the perspective of local hardware. Are tools like these the death of desktop GIS?
Personally, I don’t think so.
I think that the role of desktop GIS is going to change, but I believe that there is still a need and a role for desktop GIS in the broader GIS system ecosystem. Here’s why.
What Has Changed?
I have definitely seen a shift in the way we describe desktop GIS. For years, many of us (myself included) would characterize a difference between desktop GIS and web GIS using something along the lines of the notion that desktop GIS is where all the heavy lifting is done. Desktop GIS is where you work with the complex analysis, the large datasets. Web GIS is where you share, visualize and query data. Large datasets belonged in our RDBMS system down the hall with a direct connection to the desktop GIS.
Clearly, with products like ArcGIS Velocity and ArcGIS Image, this simple delineation no longer applies. In fact, the opposite is now true. We’re more likely to say the “Big Data” solutions need to leverage the elastic cloud. You need the massive computing and storage power of the cloud to manage big data and do machine learning.
You could make a similar argument for map publishing. I would argue that if you are making a large format, print-quality map (and believe me, I still love those), then yes – the tools to do this still reside in desktop GIS. However, it’s fair to say that the dynamic nature of interactive, real-time dashboards and apps on the Internet are, for the most part, far more valuable information products.
So, Where Does That Leave Desktop GIS?
I believe there is still a need for desktop GIS and that there are four fundamental roles for desktop GIS.
In almost 30 years in the GIS industry, one thing I have learned is, never say never. The specific functions within these roles may change, but I see them intact for the foreseeable future.
Today, most primary data creation or assembly takes place in the desktop. This is not only true for GIS but for CAD, BIM and graphic design. This is not due to any technological limitation or advantage. I believe it is simply a matter of pure convenience. Whether a user is performing feature-by-feature digitizing, editing, maintenance, or mapping - nothing beats the utility of a tailored set of tools, commands and helpers to get the job done.
Desktop GIS is not the only place for analysis. However, it is often the case that when we set out to solve a problem, it’s highly unlikely that we know exactly the path we’re going to take, and the tools we’re going to need (this is why plumbers, electricians and contractors have vans filled with every imaginable tool and spare part). As Geographers, we want to explore the data and apply tools on a trial-and-error basis. See and compare the results. We want to back out of one path and try another. Again, desktop GIS gives us the rich set of tools we can try, discard, try again. Yes, you can have analytical tools and workflows in a web service pattern, but not for purely ad-hoc “try, try again” exploration.
For me, this is the big one. A modern desktop GIS is not just a bunch of tools. A modern desktop GIS is a connected hub that lets the user centrally organize the data, the tools and workflows. It lets me connect to all kinds of sources (inside or outside my firewall). Once again, I’ll bring up web-based processing tools that now do the heavy lifting against the big data. But a modern desktop GIS lets me manage that, orchestrate those services by feeding parameters and summarizing results – perhaps even feeding the next stage. Desktop GIS can be thought of as the cockpit from which many GIS uses can be orchestrated.
I started my career as a Cartographer, and I will forever extol the virtues of a well-designed map. Beyond just the place to make high-end maps, the natural extension of “Orchestration” is “Publication”. Desktop GIS is a great place from which you can publish not only maps but publish services. We’re even seeing desktop GIS being used to publish applications and dashboards.
Ultimately, the things we do as GIS professionals on the desktop will be consumed by many, many more on the web. It’s certainly not a case of “either-or”. Desktop GIS is part of the broader ecosystem of what we need to do as GIS professionals. We ourselves must shift our role from the exclusive doer of GIS, to the advocate of what others can do with GIS. We will continue to blaze the trail and explore the new frontiers, but we also need to look back and make sure everyone reaps the value of what we sow.
This post was translated to French and can be viewed here.