The View from Here: Confidence, Hearsay and Easy-to-Use GIS

By Adena Schutzberg

Last week I read yet another press release describing how a company hides all of the complexity of GIS so that non-technical people can use it. Why, in 2008, am I still seeing releases like that? The short answer is: The vendor in question and many others clearly see a market. The longer answer is more complex.

I experienced the first big leaps in making GIS accessible in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Back then, I used MapInfo on DOS and despite flipping between text and graphics screens, I recall thinking, "This is like a spreadsheet!" I also evaluated Atlas*GIS and had the same experience. I wrote a note to my alma mater Penn State suggesting that every geography undergrad should be a proficient user of such a system before they graduated, much as they were proficient users of word processing and spreadsheet applications.

A few years later, I joined ESRI and learned just how complex a system could be, as I attended a weeklong Introduction to ARC/INFO class. I got my first taste of UNIX and the command line, and the power underneath. I'd seen a command line before in Minitab and later in AutoCAD, but the nature and number of these commands were overwhelming. Just a few months later, ESRI released ArcView 1, which my colleague April Nichols described at the time as doing just five things. (Can I remember the five things? I think so: add data, zoom in/out, classify data, do queries, print maps.) That's how she demoed it, by ticking down those five things. Audiences at these demos went wild.

Why did they go wild? In retrospect I think it had to do with confidence. Those at the presentations perceived that they could master ArcView 1. Whether, in fact, they could or not was immaterial; the fact that they felt they could was enough. Let me jump ahead. I think that's quite a lot of the appeal of Google Maps and Virtual Earth and other comparable offerings. Few in the multitude of users of these applications take full advantage of all the tools, but they can muster enough confidence to get started and perhaps more often than not, get the task done.

Where does confidence (or lack of it) come from when it comes to software technology? I identify two main sources: experience and hearsay. Experience is a key guide when tackling a new piece of software. If you've used "something like" what you are faced with, your confidence is likely higher (assuming you had some level of success with the previous app). The more experience with "look-alike" and even "not-so-look-alike" apps, the more confidence you have. I, for example, was not intimidated by MapInfo because to me it was "like" Excel. Later in my career, I mastered Quattro Pro (remember Lotus 1-2-3? Borland's Quattro was "4."); it, too, was "just like" Excel.

Hearsay, I'll suggest, can have an even greater impact on confidence than experience. There's nothing more powerful than someone "smart" stating that a piece of software is hard to use. The first instinct is to believe it! That technique is well-used in advertising to highlight complexity and make some offerings appear "out of reach." Apple did that years ago, highlighting the large pile of manuals that came with a PC versus the one thin book that came with a Mac. Apple continues to do that with its "I'm a Mac and I'm a PC" ads today. Some suggest that those ads have helped fuel the "Vista is junk" sentiment out in the world today, which many say is unjustified.

My expectation is that I'll receive fewer of the "we are making GIS simple to use" press releases in the coming years. Why? Because of confidence and hearsay. Confidence about learning and using technology is at a very different level in today's young graduates. They program cell phones, select and install their own software and manage their own laptops (and have for years!). Their confidence is likely as high as that of computer science grads when I joined the workforce.

When it comes to GIS in particular, I'm hopeful graduates will have been exposed to many different software packages, databases, Web tools and the like. We are certainly working on that at Penn State, where I now teach. My experience with software vendors in putting together my Comparative GIS course is that they are making software available in unique and elegant ways for both educational institutions and students. (One example: visit I'm also excited about the growing use of open source GIS in education, which I learned about at last year's FOSS4G event. I'm sure it'll be a hot topic this year, too.

The hearsay part is changing as well, powered by, that's right, the Web. There are more voices than ever talking about software today. It's possible to converse with "people just like you" about their experiences with software (or hardware or cookware...). Instead of trusting a single authority or the wisdom of the crowds (or advertisers), anyone can do effective research. Further, any vendor should be able, without hesitation, to provide a serious potential customer with an evaluation version to explore.

The final reason I expect to see fewer of these press releases is that more and more vendors are putting the key parts of true end-user tools right in the box. There's no need to build a quick and dirty viewer; now there's one in the box, or available free via a browser, or downloadable from the Web. You may need some consulting help to fully tweak these offerings for your needs, but it'll hopefully be a far cry from having a company build a full system just to make GIS available to regular people.

Published Friday, July 25th, 2008

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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