Is Web GIS reducing the need for GIS professionals?

December 16, 2015 Gordon Plunkett

It’s astounding how many new tools and techniques are being designed and implemented to grow GIS use over the Web. The Community Map of Canada, Collector for ArcGIS and ArcGIS Pro are just a few of the technologies continually being enhanced to expand the areas of Web GIS application. These enhancements have been so rapid and dramatic that some GIS professionals have asked: “Esri’s making it so easy to develop Web GIS technology, will I still have a job in a few years?” Let me assure you that the job of the GIS professional is not in any danger. In fact, gainful employment opportunities will only increase due to Web GIS. Read on to find out why.

How many Esri Canada User Conferences have you attended where a new product or enhancement announced in the plenary session elicited “oohs and ahhs” or spontaneous clapping from the audience? Clearly, what was presented on stage was quite impressive to get such a significant audience reaction. GIS technology and in particular, Web GIS technology, is on a roll.

Mobile and the Internet are changing everything. Many GIS apps are very simple to use nowadays that your mother (or father) could use it. This is great for users, but what will be the effect of this technology explosion on GIS professionals (i.e., the GeoGals and the GeoGuys in the GIS business)?

GIS has been evolving for decades and many of the drivers of this evolution have come from the computing industry. Do you remember mainframes, workstations and the introduction of Ethernet for computers to share files and information? Next came the PC revolution and desktop GIS. Then, the Internet and mobile devices came along, which today are many times more powerful than the old mainframes. The GIS evolution is certainly on—and the GIS market, industry and users are welcoming mobile GIS and Web GIS with open arms.

In the past, GIS professionals were required to develop or adapt GIS apps plus the requisite geographic data to get the apps up and running. Sometimes, the apps were very clumsy and the data was so intricate and complex that a GIS professional was also often required to run the task, check the calculations and pass the results on to the user. GIS use has been simplified significantly from the early years and for many apps, users today can run the app and verify the results themselves. Thus, today’s Web app world raises the question: “what’s the role of the GIS professional?”

Let’s look at some scenarios.

As you probably know, a GIS is a system designed to capture, store, manipulate, analyze, manage and present all types of spatial data. Developing all these capabilities is the work of GIS professionals—not users. Even though there are hundreds, or thousands, of users running Web GIS apps, there are still many hardworking GIS professionals in the background making sure that the data and apps operate as they should.

Today, GIS professionals efficiently collect, process, manage and store mountains of spatial data. But they exploit not just the data under their own safekeeping, they also exploit data spread all over the Internet. It’s someone’s job to find this data, make sure it is fit for use in the app, set up the Extract, Transform and Load (ETL) functions as necessary and make it available on a consistent basis for the user’s app.

Nowadays, the depth and breadth of spatial data available on the Web is astounding. For example, today’s GIS professionals have access to national topographic map coverage via the Community Map of Canada from Esri Canada, years of Landsat satellite imagery data from USGS, and just recently, space-based full-color HD videos of Earth from UrtheCast. As well, data capture from unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) cameras and airborne LiDAR sensors is all the rage today.

Another job that GIS professionals often perform is building the app. This has become a lot easier with the advent of Esri map templates, Web AppBuilder for ArcGIS and Web services. However, these apps don’t build themselves: someone has to figure out what needs to be done in the app and actually build, release and maintain the app. This is a job for GIS professionals.

So, how are these Web GIS apps used? Well, they’re used for lots of things. Here are a few.

Federal and provincial governments use Web GIS for applications including defence, elections, census, public safety, natural resources, health care, agriculture and forestry. Local governments use the technology for applications such as economic development, fire prevention, education, facilities management, public transit, waste pickup schedules, reporting potholes, public works and planning. Businesses use Web GIS for retail location siting, reviewing insurance claims and logistics management, among others. Meanwhile, utilities use the technology for power outage notification, determining gas delivery areas, cell phone tower locating, and system monitoring. The list is long and growing.

Explore how organizations across Canada are using Web GIS in this ArcGIS Online gallery.

Looking at today’s Web GIS market, application areas are expanding and so are source data types and volume, plus Web GIS use. Clearly, the need for GIS professionals in a growing industry is increasing.

So, if you think that Web GIS threatens your job security as a GIS professional, then I think you need to look around. As a GIS professional, you just need to grow your experience and skill set to ensure that you’re positioned to take advantage of Web GIS opportunities as they present themselves.

About the Author

Gordon Plunkett

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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