Shortcuts to Knowledge

By Adena Schutzberg

Last week a story surfaced that students were "outsourcing" their homework. Apparently, it's popular in programming courses where students have to write short programs to solve a specific problem. While educators and others were appropriately angered, my thoughts turned to how the shortcuts in the business world were simply trickling down to students. Even Tom Sawyer did a bit of outsourcing, now didn't he?

It's not outsourcing that I want to consider here, it's shortcuts. There are quite a few of them popping up in different areas of the geospatial marketplace that bear some consideration.

ESRI-like products
First I want to consider this wording from an online geospatial job description:
"Design and develop end-user tools and applications using ESRI or ESRI-like GIS products." There are probably a few things going on that led to this wording. One is that ESRI is becoming the "Kleenex" of GIS, which is no big surprise. Another is that whoever put this notice together didn't have a better term for "ESRI-like GIS products." Apparently, "GIS products" was too broad and perhaps some requirement of openness meant that just stating "ESRI products" was unacceptable.

One other interpretation is that "ESRI-like" is a sort of shorthand, or shortcut for "all of the technology that's in the same space as the things that ESRI technology does." What that means is that the person doing the writing need not know what those technologies are, on what platforms they run, what languages are used to customize them, etc. I have to believe that someone down in the organization knows all those things, but for this notice, the shortcut was good enough.

GISCI Certified
I spent quite a few electrons covering the GIS Certification Institute, the organization that provides practitioners with the opportunity to submit a portfolio of documented educational and professional experience (and a check) and receive certification. One of the best explanations of the Institute's role in the marketplace was provided by Jeff Thurston, editor of GeoConnexion. He argued that GISCI was a trusted filter that those who knew little about GIS could depend on to help vet potential candidates. GISCI, I'll offer, is a shortcut of sorts, relieving those doing the hiring of the necessity of having to learn too much about geospatial technology in order to hire someone who might. (There is an aspect of outsourcing here, to be sure.)

I suspect those putting together portfolios also see GISCI as a shortcut to getting a job. It says, so they would argue, "I'm already certified, so no need to wait too long to select and then hire me!"

The most popular shortcut into geospatial, at least based on ink in the popular press and entries in blogs, is the new fad of map mashups. Get some location-based data; link it up via an open API and viola, instant map of boat launches or NFL teams or whatever. Programmers love it, end users love it, Google and Microsoft and Yahoo love it . . .

Those in the geospatial arena certainly see these mashups as skipping over some key parts of the cartographic/GIS process of selecting a projection, scale and quality background data set, creating a data layer and then tweaking the presentation parameters such as color, annotation and marker symbols. These mashups are the ultimate shortcut to an online map; nearly everything is decided for you. Even non-programmers can get in on the fun with tools like this one from Japan.

There are certainly some positives about all of these (and other) shortcuts. ESRI's name being synonymous with GIS is simply a maturation of the brand, just as iPOD is synonymous with MP3 players. On the other hand, I suspect that if you asked someone what an iPod was, they might say an MP3 player from Apple. If you asked the person who wrote the aforementioned ad about ESRI, the respondent might say something about GIS or maps, but have less of an understanding of what it is, and its implications for society.

GISCI has certainly raised awareness of the field of GIS. Has it also allowed folks to keep a safe distance from the deeper world of GIS and geospatial technology by acting as a middle man? Is that positive or negative for the industry? I'm really not sure.

Map mashups (and the core technology that underlie them) have raised awareness of online mapping and the data available to an unprecedented level. Those in the industry are quick to point out that "a rising tide lifts all boats." Does a shortcut necessarily do so? Were the children who played those toy pianos with color coded keys really drawn to study the instrument? Are T-ball players destined to become Major Leaguers?

I suppose the biggest fear for many is simply the "dumming down" of our beloved technology as a result of these shortcuts. If GIS software equals only ESRI, we will have lost something. If GIS in time equals Google Maps, we will have lost something. If GISCI is the hoop through which all resumed geospatial personnel must jump, we will have lost something. Keep an eye out for these shortcuts and consider the price our industry may eventually pay for them.

Published Tuesday, January 31st, 2006

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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