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.
First I want to consider this wording from an online geospatial job
"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.
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.