GIS Next: A Chasm Crossed

By Joe Francica

Has GIS jumped the chasm? Have we survived middle age and reached maturity, and if so, what's next? Looking back only a few short years, some speculated that "GIS was dead" and "spatial wasn't special," the term and tool vanquished by the larger forces of the information technology industry. I, for one, thought that the term "GIS" might go away and become merely "embedded" in other software solutions (Francica, GIS World, 1993). Not so. "My bad." In fact, the reverse has occurred, albeit with some amount of hand wringing and introspection. What has happened instead is an explosion of diversity, segmentation and focus.

The Diversity
What Google spawned was nothing short of the Great Awakening. The advent of Google Maps was not the "GIS killer" or "killer app"; it was a GIS promoter. It was the platform that allowed more people to see the utility of geospatial information, and that sharpened the focus of the companies that birthed the technology in the first place. Shaken out of complacency, GIS software companies have found their stride in promoting what was always solid technology, but had not always yielded effective solutions. Some software was "buggy" while some had complicated interfaces to create simple thematic maps.

We only have to look at the birth of the map mashup to see what happened. Mashups do one thing very well. They link a map platform with geographically referenced data. The availability of data, such as a Web service that results from the creation of geospatial standards, allows a simple display of information. From humble beginnings, a genie's bottle opened and basic mashups begat mashups 2.0, 3.0, etc. Both old and new geospatial software companies have embraced the mashup and have found new ways, and new data sources, to display information. Mashups are generated on the fly when the need arises, as in the recent California fires (see FireLocator), and it's not always the GIS standard-bearers who are developing them. It is sometimes the mainstream media that use mashups to quickly convey the news. This explosion of users is exactly what should be expected, given the right tools.

But the opposite end of the spectrum is flourishing as well. The "science" of geospatial information is open to a wider audience. The functions associated with map algebra are now exposed as wizards within some raster image processing software solutions (see ESRI's ArcGIS Spatial Analyst). We merely have to select an algorithm from a drop-down menu to apply a spatial interaction model. Spatial regression is no longer confined to an equation in a textbook, but is one of the options we choose to process the statistics of geospatial data. Equally important, we can visualize the results on a map - not as a table of numbers. And more users are noticing because they are asking questions they might not have asked before we knew the power of mapping technology, mashups and, yes, Google Maps. They are beginning to think spatially.

The Segmentation
In parallel, market segmentation of the geospatial business has occurred. No single company does it all. While the past saw companies trying to deliver the data, database, mapping software and computer hardware as a complete package, today's geospatial solution providers offer products or data only within their core competencies. In the past, we might have contacted MapInfo to buy street centerline data in a .tab or .mid/.mif format; today we may now go directly to NAVTEQ or Tele Atlas. At those firms, we ask for not only street data but points of interest, and now, real-time traffic. But even they don't have all the pieces. Users now cry for an immersive suite of data. Building information models, "street views" or video logs, "bird's eye" perspective views of cities - all create a sense of being "in" the map view. Microsoft's Photosynth provides an automated way to collect and spatially rectify 2D digital photographs into a 3D medium. It is image processing in the extreme, all without knowing or caring about the algorithms that do it. This type of specialization is creating sub-industries within the geospatial technology sector.

How are we processing all of these data? With spatial databases and data warehouse appliances. Specialized data storage that recognizes spatial primitives (points, lines and areas) is now the norm and growing. The past year saw product advances by Oracle and Microsoft to their spatial database solutions and the entrance of players like Mark Logic and Netezza , which offer a way to manage and retrieve large volumes of data faster by delivering a specialized geospatial data appliance. Organizations and companies (think: military intelligence, insurance and retailers) that are acquiring large volumes of transactions with geospatial references cannot spend hours waiting for a map to spit out. When the map is the "answer" to the question, "Where?" the decision maker wants it "now"!

This segmentation process is the natural evolution of a maturing industry. More will occur as innovation continues and companies enter or leave the market. But the end result will be growth, diversity and specialization.

The Focus
The maturing marketplace has also given rise to keener focus. Some companies in the geospatial technology sector have found important niches. Safe Software has developed horizontal technology for extract, transform and load (ETL), in use by both vendors and end users alike. It's an important and practical example of an indispensable tool where interoperability is not always achieved simply. Safe is an example of a company that survives in such a niche area where ETL no longer has to be the burden it once was on the front end of a project. Problem solved; focus achieved.

Acquisitions, another phenomenon of a maturing industry sector, have occurred pairing companies like MapInfo and Intergraph with specific market segments. MapInfo, now a part of Pitney Bowes, is focused more on marketing solutions, while Intergraph is aligned with the military, federal government and intelligence communities. The focus has allowed each company to flourish without feeling the pressure to compete head-to-head with ESRI, which remains the only true, horizontal GIS company.

This idea of "focus" has an interesting quirk. More companies want to embed the mapping technology but don't want to stray from their existing expertise. Software solution providers in the business intelligence (BI) technology sector have been peering over the fence at maps and GIS. They like what they see because a BI dashboard is a visual platform. Numbers crunched by BI solutions take the form of pie charts and line graphs. BI companies are kin to GIS. They embrace the fact that people are "visual"; they need pictures to consolidate information and make decisions. They like maps but have stumbled somewhat in understanding their true utility. That will change as we see more functionally jump the gap between GIS and BI. The result will yield more location intelligent companies.

GIS Next
There is no next. The fantastic explosion we have seen in geospatial innovation has just begun. I see no decrease in the amount of new products or solutions entering the market and certainly there seem to be new companies wanting to find their niche using maps. At Directions, where we once received five to ten press releases a day, we now see 20 to 30. It is a remarkable situation viewed in the context of what appears to be an economy that is tanking.

Some, in the middle of the maelstrom, want for calmer seas. Don't expect that to happen anytime soon. Even with the maturity that we have seen in the industry, there is wonderful chaos and inventiveness. Hold tight to the gunwales. There is more creativity ahead. Be thankful.

Published Friday, December 12th, 2008

Written by Joe Francica

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