A Look at the Last Twenty Years of GIS

By Mike DeLacey

Over the past 20 years, the world has witnessed an evolution in technology that in the not-so-distant past would have been unfathomable. Just the invention of the Internet alone has changed the entire landscape of our industry. The constant connectivity brought by smartphones and tablets is now the norm not only in our personal lives, but also within the context of the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industries. Similarly, advancements in geographic information systems (GIS) are increasing as technology does, enabling organizations to leverage data to make more informed decisions on all fronts. As we celebrated our 20th anniversary at Microdesk last month, we began to look back at the rise of various technologies, particularly GIS, and assess how more advanced and modern tools are shaping our present and our future.

Though GIS has been used throughout the AEC industry since the late 1960s, the last 20 years have shown a major difference in the way organizations look to incorporate these services. GIS is now considered an essential investment to C-suite executives, not just the technical or IT staff. This is due to a better understanding of the importance of these services and the value they bring to the overall enterprise.

GIS technology has advanced from simply capturing and storing spatial elements to the complex analysis of data samples. For example, today GIS is used to combine layers of data and generate models that project various ecological simulations that can be used to predict everything from the effects of a natural disaster to the consequences of human land use. We are as close to having a crystal ball as ever before.

As these technological advancements have taken place, the industry has also experienced a large shift in the GIS sales process. Today we see a more mature customer base and business decision makers that are more involved in the overarching process of defining how technology solutions are implemented within their organizations. C-level executives have taken a keener interest in how technology is being used, both in terms of how their organizations are utilizing these tools as well as how other players in the industry are implementing them.

When we discuss the difference between the involvement of today’s C-level executives, versus those from 20 years ago, we have to understand that their comfort level with technology has shifted overall. Over the past two decades, we have seen the proliferation of the Internet and smartphones, which has accelerated consumer expectations for technology, and in turn, has created a new level of expectation when it comes to technology and the convenience it provides within the enterprise. Twenty years ago, the average C-level executive would ultimately pass off any technology decision to the IT staff. Today, executives have a true understanding of the technology and therefore understand the importance of implementing these tools.

Portable technology is an indispensable tool in today’s AEC world - namely tablets and mobile phones, with the progression to “phablets” (the phone/tablet combination) happening before our eyes. Because the use of technology has become standard in everyday life, with applications such as Google Maps that can provide information in seconds, the expectation for convenience, ease and speed has accelerated in the AEC space. The C-suite has now come to understand the value its business receives from using GIS technologies, and furthermore has come to expect a certain level of intelligence and convenience.

With the seamless integration of mapping technology in the consumer’s life setting the tone for technology integration in business enterprise, there is an expectation that mapping should be as easy for the AEC industry. The argument being, if an application that lives on a cell phone can produce a route map from Portland, Oregon to Washington, D.C., showing each service station along the way in a matter of seconds, why is it more difficult to produce a map of a company’s facility or geographic elements over time in a town? While CAD (computer-aided design)-based GIS has served the needs of the community up until now, it is unable to meet these new expectations. The reason for this is twofold: first, the actual hardware is not developed enough to handle the rapid technology developments, and second, the mindset of engineers still greatly differs from experts in mapping and GIS.

The bright side is, however, that the industry is fully aware of this and actively working to develop new solutions. Software developers are spending the bulk of their time trying to determine the best way to keep up with industry standards and expectations, ensuring products in the field provide organizations with a combination of capabilities and convenience. They understand that in order to stay relevant, they need to produce software that rivals applications used by consumers today. They aim to produce products that give companies access to technology that can provide in-depth information and analysis, but are easily accessible from phones and tablets.

New BIM (building information modeling)-based GIS tools, such as ArcGIS are being implemented and essentially taking the place of CAD-based GIS systems. With BIM becoming the standard in the industry and for GIS, the AEC community is able to utilize mapping technologies in a way that provides intelligence far beyond even that of the consumer expectation. With this shift, we will see more consumer-based information modeling data, but the overall goal will be to build very accurate 3-D models that allow analysis of real-world attributes. These advancements will be more likely to meet the expectations of industry participants today and in the future.

Today, the pace of technology development is tenfold what it was 20 years ago. And I believe that as we move forward, the level of development will only continue to accelerate in order to meet the growing demand for access to real-time intelligence. As a result, the changes in the next two decades will be significantly greater than what we've seen over the last two. With such rapid change upon us, there is an overall understanding within the industry that we must reassess expectations as technologies develop. Ultimately, we can conclude that these changes will make the world of GIS an even more interesting place than it already is today.


Published Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

Written by Mike DeLacey


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