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Is disruptive technology leading to a new pattern of GIS?

The Internet and instant communication among individuals, communities and societies have transformed and improved people’s lives. With boundless human drive, the Internet revolution continues to provide enhanced communication between people and machines. But is this Internet revolution changing the pattern of GIS as well?

Every day we hear about how disruptive the Internet has become in the retail sector because it’s changing individual’s as well as society’s purchasing patterns.  Because more people choose to buy goods online and have them delivered to their door, there is an enormous upheaval in the retail sector. Companies are struggling to keep market share in their conventional bricks and mortar businesses plus provide the best online product and service experience for their customers.

For many business processes, we use the term “pattern” to describe a discernable and predictable series of interactions which represent a new or established mode of behaviour. These interactions can be duplicated and modelled in business processes.  So, in this case, we say that the retail pattern of business has and continues to change significantly due to the Internet.

But what about the pattern of GIS? Is the way we use and interact with GIS changing due to the Internet? Well, let’s have a look.

To determine if the pattern of GIS has or is changing, we need to explore the pattern of GIS before the Internet became so prevalent. To do this, we’ll examine the steps that were traditionally performed in a GIS application in the 1990’s. These steps for a desktop GIS application included:

  1. Define your GIS application objective (frame the question to be answered)
  2. Design a methodology or workflow (select the proper tools)
  3. Find the right data (explore and prepare data)
  4. Perform the analysis (use the tools against the data)
  5. Examine and refine your results (study the outputs and tweak process if necessary)

Probably the most difficult step in this GIS application process was finding and preparing data. The rule of thumb at the time was that this step could take 60% to 80% of the project time. Sometimes the data was just not available anywhere.  So, either a new data collection project was started and alternative data was studied to see if it was fit for use, or the application project was scrapped.

Other issues in the data preparation step included examining data volumes, coordinate reference systems, data formats, data models, map scales, legal agreements and data currency. Generally, all these needed to be consistent across the spatial data for the application to work properly. Each project was unique and often required custom work on each dataset to ensure data consistency across the application. With all this essential work, it’s no wonder that data exploration and conditioning became an increasingly complex and resource-demanding step.

 Example of GIS project work undertaken by Roger Tomlinson and the government team to create Canada Land Inventory (CLI), Soil Capability for Agriculture maps, published in 1976.

Over time, the Web GIS paradigm has evolved resulting in new steps in application development such as:

  1. Search online catalogues for map data and web map services
  2. Examine data to ensure it is fit for the purpose
  3. Access all necessary data layers within a web application framework
  4. Run your GIS application
  5. Examine results and publish them to the web for others to use and enjoy.

Much of the tedious “grunt” work is now hidden from the user. In general, the application developer is less concerned about coordinate systems, data volumes, data models, data formats and data currency. Even both raster and vector data can be easily integrated and used in modern web applications.

Modern web application showing time-enabled Landsat NDVI overlaid with CLI – Land Capability for Agriculture for the Calgary region of Alberta.

So, has the GIS pattern changed due to web applications? Well, it most certainly has. There are fewer technical details to be concerned about as the application development frameworks are now able to handle a diverse range of data scenarios. Some application development can even be performed without any programming at all. And the best part is that the user can choose how they publish and share their results - with just a selected community or the entire Internet world.

For example, Esri’s new flagship desktop GIS product: ArcGIS Pro. This next-generation 64-bit application provides users with professional 2D and 3D mapping capabilities in an intuitive user interface. ArcGIS Pro significantly advances visualization, analytics, image processing, data management and integration.

Moreover, since ArcGIS Pro  is extremely web-compatible, web data and services can be ingested or exported easily, and this facilitates the rapid development and use of web applications.. The rapid development capability is a game changer in that it helps users get data quickly and publish a map or app in time-sensitive situations like disaster management, emergency response or even to make the map your boss needs right away.

To summarize, GIS pattern has changed a lot due to the increasing pervasiveness of the Internet. However, while enormous strides have been made in Web GIS application development and use, there is still lots of room for improvement. I can’t wait to see more enhancements in the user experience for both GIS developers and users in the coming years. Stay tuned!

About the Author

Gordon Plunkett is the Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) Director at Esri Canada. He has more than 30 years of experience in GIS and Remote Sensing in both the public and private sectors. He currently sits as a member of the Community Map of Canada Steering Committee, GeoAlliance Canada Interim Board of Directors, the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) Technical Committee, the Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB) Committee on Geomatics, the University of Laval Convergence Network Advisory Committee and the Advisory Board to the Carleton University Geomatics and Cartographic Research Centre. During his career, Gordon has worked on projects in more than 20 countries and has contributed to numerous scientific conferences and publications. At Esri Canada, he is responsible for developing and supporting the company’s SDI vision, initiatives and outreach, including producing content for the SDI blog.

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