The Convergence of Web and Desktop GIS

By Jon Winslow


When Pitney Bowes Business Insight and Microsoft announced the integration of their respective desktop GIS and mapping platforms earlier this year, it served as one more example of how divergent solutions are coming together to provide greater insight to analysts and organizations.
Across the board, desktop applications are adapting to new technologies and changing market conditions, making it easier to access and analyze location-oriented data worldwide.  Going forward, this convergence of technologies and mindsets will only serve to increase the role of location intelligence - and the business value it provides.
Now, GIS professionals can continue to perform advanced, data-driven analysis while seamlessly presenting this information using visual tools that are familiar to the broader business community.  In many ways, mapping platforms like Bing Maps and Google Maps and Earth will serve as the canvas – providing a common fabric on which analysts can overlay complex data to deliver more compelling insights to more people.
Tile server technology adds the required speed
In the past, if someone wanted to overlay an aerial image on a series of data points, the server had to load the data set, zoom to the desired level, render the image and then send.  Now it’s all done in advance.
Tile server technology (e.g. the ability to cache images) makes it possible to pre-render and pre-create views of maps at different levels in advance. Billions of these tiles already exist at Bing and Google – what’s new is that today’s leading desktop applications are configured to talk to these servers and can automatically determine which tiles to download.  This integration of Web and desktop technology means organizations need only download the specific tiles required, which is significantly faster and requires less overhead and data maintenance.
For organizations looking to present location analysis via the Web, this speed is especially critical.  GIS professionals can conduct their analysis in the background and take advantage of the market expertise and power inherent in desktop mapping solutions – whereas users who are more interested in visualizing the data can see the results of this analysis in an environment where speed is everything. By accessing data where they exist -  in the cloud - you can deliver a first-rate user experience without the administrative costs associated with updates, data storage, hardware and disk space.
While the adoption of tile server technology is one significant change, another change is just as important - a change in attitude toward Bing Maps and Google Maps and Earth among the GIS professionals.  At one point in time, desktop platform providers worked hard to position themselves against Web mapping tools, often citing the power, industry expertise and spatial analytic capabilities inherent in leading desktop solutions, including the ability to handle complex data sets with ease.  Today, however, the focus is on collaboration and customer value.
This new collaboration provides significant advantages
The integration of desktop GIS and mapping platforms provides a more intuitive, easy, straightforward experience that actually serves to increase business intelligence.  The end result is a simple interface driven by complex, behind-the-scenes modules that can be instantly accessed worldwide.
  • More efficient spatial analysis
Analysts spend an inordinate amount of time gathering specialized data before they get into the heavy data crunching and analysis.  Now, this up-front exploratory stage is faster and more insightful. Analysts can quickly pan, zoom and gain a high-level overview of the geography in question, orienting themselves to the problem at hand before overlaying their data sets.
  • The simplicity of one consistent canvas
The ability to rely on one source of aerial and street-level images ensures that everyone in your organization shares the same view. The familiarity of Bing Maps and Google Maps provides for an accessible, less intimidating experience that makes it easier for non-GIS professionals to grasp the significance of location-based analysis.
  • Faster dissemination of information
Well-trained analysts have long relied on powerful desktop tools to overlay and analyze complex data sets.  But information is only powerful if it can be accessed and used by decision makers. Today, as the lines between desktop and Web applications continue to blur, this behind-the-scenes analysis provides anywhere, anytime access to location intelligence.
  • More comprehensive, one-stop capabilities
Previously, organizations needed to procure tools and data sets in advance– identifying needs, sourcing apps and pulling pieces together on an ad hoc basis.  Now, GIS processionals can think more about long-term solutions because these tools are already integrated into the leading desktop platforms. 
The strategic alliances between desktop applications and Web-based image providers have clearly simplified procurement. With aerial maps, street maps and data sets built-in and pre-tested within platforms, organizations benefit from a high-quality, well-integrated experience without the hassle. Customers simply access and pay only for what they need, when they need it.
  • Lower costs
With data and images now available on demand, organizations also benefit from more flexible licensing agreements that allow them to access content across multiple users cost-effectively - helping to save tens of thousands of dollars.
Organizations now gain location intelligence faster and more easily
Integrated solutions that incorporate geocoding, mapping, data quality, map data, aerial images, routing and spatial analytics are already making an impact in a broad range of industries.
In the public sector, local governments can quickly download aerial maps that turn squares on a map into lawns, woods, structures and geographical details – providing the visualization needed to plot future developments, such as paths or emergency access routes.
Firms that excavate natural resources can account for rock formations in their planning, while those in the utilities and communications industries can pinpoint the exact location of towers and other network assets.  Likewise, anyone making decisions regarding real estate can combine complex demographic and market analysis with insights quickly attained by the human eye – such as the proximity to commercial activity or swamp lands and where structures are located on any given parcel.
Through alliances like the one between Pitney Bowes Business Insight and Microsoft, the once slow and painstaking process of integrating Web-based maps into GIS systems is now quick, easy and automatic - an indication that customer value remains at the core of innovation.

Published Monday, August 30th, 2010

Written by Jon Winslow

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