Expanding the GIS Universe through Open API Toolkits

By Christopher J. Andrews

When I entered the GIS field and attempted to explain my job to my friends or relatives, they would respond by saying something like "You mean like Rand McNally maps?" A few years later, after the spread of popular Internet use, the response to the same explanation became "You mean like MapQuest?" By mid-2005, the excited response changed to "Right, like Google Maps!" Although I never created applications or products exactly like those produced by Rand McNally, MapQuest or Google, these companies' products and services became an increasingly accurate representation of my day job. The most astounding thing to me during this period was the exponential increase in understanding of GIS that seemed to correlate with Web usage.

By the end of 2005, typical Web users believed that they were knowledgeable about Internet mapping because of their use of Google Maps or Google Earth. Somehow Google had not only managed to make Web-based mapping cool and popular, the pioneering company also managed to define GIS for the general Internet user better than any GIS-based company or agency had done before. Moving into 2007, Google and other open API Web mapping service providers are well positioned to continue to popularize GIS and fundamentally redefine the GIS industry by continuing to develop mapping as a facet of Web-based content. (An API, or Application Programming Interface, is a means to customize software or add in data by writing new code that works with it.)

Perceived barriers to entry
Like most GIS professionals, when I first heard of Google's entries into the Web-based mapping arena, I thought of the many obstacles that an open API platform would have to overcome to be useable by my clients, who were my models of the typical GIS Web-mapping users. Map projections, licensing models and data integration all seemed like insurmountable barriers to the entry of a simple open API into the Web-mapping market space. Clearly I was wrong. Browsing through the listings on the Google Maps Mania blog, a popular blog that lists news and examples of websites integrated with Google Maps, will reveal a multitude of services ranging from mapping popular fish species, to finding and rating local nightclubs, to sharing GPS bike trails information.

These mashups, or integrated Web applications, use mapping technology for domains that deviate dramatically from typical GIS-industry Web mapping applications. My model of a Web-based GIS user was not representative of the average Web user, who simply wants to see some maps along with his everyday surfing experience. I suspect that many in the industry were equally confounded and surprised by similar misperceptions.

Google's innovative staff had hit on the fact that the standard Web user is comfortable using free mapping services, could care less about map projections, and is simply happy to see his data on a map that shows roads and satellite imagery, possibly even in 3-D. Yahoo! and Microsoft arrived at similar conclusions and all three companies have rapidly grown their Web-based mapping market share. These companies provided much desired maps to a ripe marketplace filled with increasingly sophisticated Internet users. They gave out cool satellite imagery as a bonus and then opened up APIs that allow anyone with knowledge of basic Web technology to become a Web-mapping pioneer.

Google was not the first company to attempt to offer Web-based tools for Internet mapping. Nor was it the first to provide satellite images for large coverage areas of the world's surface. Yet numerous business examples show that early market entry does not guarantee market dominance. Early entrants typically spend money to educate the market and need to earn money directly from that educational effort. On one hand, Google timed the mapping entries well to take advantage of the increasing sophistication of Web users. On the other hand, Google, a company focused on an advertising-based revenue model, has the financial flexibility to wait out, acquire or build over any barriers that limit the company's Web-mapping offerings.

From the esoteric to the mundane

Nearly two years after the introduction of Google Maps, I'm a convert. I'm ecstatic that Google and other companies such as Yahoo!, Microsoft and MapQuest provide open API mapping tools that allow anyone with an idea to build a website that integrates with mapping technology. True, there are licensing restrictions that control the use of these open mapping services for direct commercial use, but as Google must have realized along the way, no one is really going to pay to map the home location of his pet tropical fish. Instead, services that provide interesting and convenient mapping information become eye-catching content portals that attract Web-based advertising and product sales. By focusing on the ultimate goal of selling advertising, Google capitalized on a decades-old barrier to GIS sales, the fact that GIS is often a pretty add-on which has a direct cost with an indirect return.

Completely mundane uses of mapping applications are proliferating on the Internet, facilitated by the elimination of that direct cost, plus the valuable addition of features such as address geocoding and satellite mapping. This new generation of Web-based mapping applications enhances the content and experience for the everyday Internet user while simultaneously generating more advertising opportunities for companies like Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft.

Competitive landscape

With open API tools, GIS has become available to everyone. Contrary to the expectations of market-dominating GIS companies, the license-based sales model could never put Web mapping technology on every desktop. Hobby users with big ideas rarely take the risk of paying for mapping data and expensive software licensing to convert their ideas into reality. Given an open mapping API and a little know-how, the Web hobbyist can now create a useful, flashy website that integrates mapping with the content of his choice. The competitive market has been fundamentally changed now that GIS users and developers can integrate Web content with Web-based mapping services. The open API service providers have started a shift in GIS education, data provisioning and services that is likely to continue to change the face of GIS for the coming decade.

For example, high school and college educators who wanted to dabble with GIS typically needed to purchase costly software licenses and experienced great difficulty acquiring local GIS data. Despite the introduction of alternatives such as free open source GIS tools, the complexity of GIS software and the heterogeneity in data types and sources continued to hinder basic academic use of GIS software. Open Web mapping tools have eliminated these barriers by providing standard base map data and simple APIs for manipulating maps.

Furthermore, the flashy yet easy addition of satellite imagery to map websites has fomented amazing interest in satellite technology. Many satellite imagery companies' commercial marketing enterprises that may have been floundering three years ago suddenly find that their imagery is in higher demand.

Perhaps the greatest impact of open mapping API is on historically dominant GIS powerhouses, such as ESRI. I have already observed novice GIS implementers, initiated into electronic mapping through the usefulness of open API mapping tools, balk at the costs of acquiring standard GIS software licensing and data. These developing GIS professionals, whose predecessors grouped the high cost of GIS licensing with death and taxes, now inspect every open API license and open source package in an attempt to bypass the cost of traditional GIS licensing. The complete impact of open API mapping tools on the GIS market will only be realized when this next generation of GIS developers becomes a generation of decision makers who have no specific attachment to any one mapping technology.

Looking forward

The open APIs are here to stay. No barriers to the continuation of open API Web services exist that companies such as Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! cannot overcome through acquisition, litigation or old-fashioned ingenuity and development. The only barrier to continuance would be if these companies decide that Web-based mapping services are not useful or profitable. As only longtime GIS professionals know, maps are insidiously pretty. Once maps are used in an organization or on a website, users typically demand that the maps evolve, and will probably scream if the maps go away. As long as the open API providers see mapping capabilities as a profitable enhancement to their service offerings, the open Web mapping APIs will be available.

Although purists will say that open API Web-mapping tools do not equate with true GIS, the proliferation of mapping websites that use these APIs suggests that the definition of GIS is changing. GIS is merging with mainstream Internet technology, becoming one of the many facets of content that is required by Web-using citizens to pay their bills, find the nearest cheap gas, and, yes, even map the origin of their favorite pet fish. The seamless integration of mapping technology with everyday problem solving is the pinnacle of GIS adoption in our society, regardless of how mundane that integration appears to be.

Going forward, Internet mapping APIs should become even more useful when combined with the diverse technologies and tools available to the companies that provide open mapping Web services. I expect to see better integration of maps with natural language searches, the ability to use filtered spatial queries through mapping search engines, and possibly the creation of dossiers containing geographically related content of interest to individual Web users. I expect that in a few years, rather than watching people fade off as I tell them about my job, I'll be listening to them reply to me with details of how they use mapping on the Web. If that is the case, this new and intimate knowledge of GIS will be attributable to companies like Google that found the right formula to help the GIS industry enhance the Web browsing experience for millions of users.

Published Friday, January 12th, 2007

Written by Christopher J. Andrews

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