The View from Here: Confidence, Hearsay and Easy-to-Use GIS
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 students.autodesk.com.)
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