GIS for Everyone?

March 26, 2014

Sharing is Caring

We (the GIS community) have a problem. It is a problem of our own making, and one that emerged from the very best of intentions, but it is nonetheless a problem. It is a problem that was born partially from our own insecurities and a near compulsive need to be liked. It was born from our love of GIS and our strong desire to evangelize about our chosen profession, driven by the strong belief that the world would be a better place if everyone embraced the technology like we do. Our motives were extremely noble and worthy and absolutely valid but the unintended consequences were either unanticipated or un-discussed. However, we can leave the topic unexplored no longer if we are to maintain a vibrant and prosperous profession. The problem is: “GIS for Everyone” - or at least an unintended consequence of the verbiage we use when proselytizing about GIS to anyone (“everyone”) who will listen. Expanding the adoption of GIS technologies is absolutely the right thing to do, but by using the same generic “GIS” terminology for the broader discipline and also the profession we risk diluting the greater understanding of the value we (GIS professionals) provide.

The challenge that we face by using the term “GIS” to describe our profession is that it means so many different things to so many different people. It is not only a profession, but also a whole array of technologies and methodologies that solve a nearly inexhaustible array of spatial challenges that are colorfully described in GIS publications and now mainstream media. These are technologies and methodologies that are being sold (both the idea and the software) to “everyone,” and in my estimation “everyone” is really quite a lot of people - just how many, I am sure could be solved by some GIS geek locked away in a basement somewhere. So while the expansion of GIS is a great opportunity, unless we act, GIS professionals are in danger of losing the initiative by not clearly defining what we bring to the party - and to date, it has been a 20+ year party with balloons, some really good hors d’oeuvres and excellent company. To some it may sound just like semantics, but it is much more serious than that and I will explain why.

Most professions are, by definition, undertaken by professionals, and “that is a good thing,” as Martha Stewart would say. If a surgeon is performing brain surgery on you, he is unlikely to turn to a nurse and say, “We are all in the medical profession and this is a hoot, why don’t you have a go. Just don’t touch that wobbly thing next to the thing that looks like a dried-up walnut.” Indeed, anyone pretending to be a doctor would justifiably be taken away in a police van and made to eat bad food for 18 months with time off for good behavior. Not only that, we all have a definite image of a surgeon in our heads, wearing a crisp green uniform and mask, deftly flourishing a scalpel with the skill of……well, a surgeon. But in our fervor to spread the GIS message, we are indeed turning to strangers and saying, “Come on, have a go, everyone can do it, and it is fun,” when sometimes we should be saying, “Put your hands in the air and step away from the data.”

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that GIS shouldn’t be a universally used technology that can be put to quite remarkable uses by a wide variety of people for the greater good of our planet. What I’m saying is that as a profession we need a better collective noun to describe the professional side of the business as compared with the consumer side. It is not a problem that many professions have – I work with licensed engineers and they can probably sleep soundly at night knowing that their jobs are not under threat from “amateur” engineers performing the structural engineering for a new skyscraper. In fact, not only are there laws against such things, but amateur engineers putting up a shed in their garden are happy to call themselves handymen (handypersons) or in British slang - bodgers - without impinging on the extensive education, licensing and experience that define an engineer.

But in GIS, despite the same extensive education, professional certification and experience, we generously share GIS with amateurs, layman, interested parties and people hanging around the booth at a GIS conference with the sole intent of stealing the giveaways to take home to their kids. These people perform GIS and to an untrained eye it quite often looks remarkably like professional GIS because that is the beauty of today’s GIS software. But we know it is not. We know in our hearts that all our education and years of experience would create a vastly better product, yet we sigh and give a thumbs-up and mutter, “Yeah, GIS for everyone!”  I can imagine it is the same feeling that a professional photographer has when someone snaps a picture with their iPhone and declares it art. That photo has its place, but the professional, with his professional-grade SLR camera, with his exquisite knowledge of lighting, tonality and composition, with his degree in photography and with his 15 years of experience, knows it is a “different” product.

So those who diligently protect the reputation of their own profession will, without a second thought, open up GIS software and create complex data and feel justified because they “once took a GIS class at college,” without feeling the need to seek the guidance of a GIS professional. I’d have to take my shoes and socks off to count the number of utility networks I have seen that were poorly constructed - without proper snapping, attribution, metadata, connectivity or well-constructed database design. And they wouldn’t know a geometric network if it jumped out of a cake wearing an “I am a Geometric Network, stupid” tee-shirt. These bad data, poor statistics, lousy analysis and ugly maps threaten our livelihood because to the outside world, GIS is GIS and we professionals own the reputation of GIS. So we don’t stamp our professional maps with the “Seal of the Royal and Honorable Society of GIS Professionals” - but maybe we need to, in order to protect our profession and our clients.

It is not protectionism or elitism to divide GIS into professional and non-professional categories rather than a continuum of services (well, maybe a bit, but every persistent profession has a healthy dose of paranoia); it is the behavior of a sensible body of professionals that needs to define the value it provides the world or lose out. Without any leadership on this issue there is a very real threat that GIS will flourish but professional GIS will lose its shine, with the result of fewer opportunities for our hard-working community. We need a collective noun (suggestions welcome) to describe ourselves, so we don’t simply say, “I do GIS.” We need to clearly describe how, as a collection of professionals, we produce a valuable product that is worth the premium that it might cost to engage us. The continued popularity of GIS is both a tremendous opportunity and also a potential threat, so maybe instead of “GIS for Everyone” it should be “GIS for most people, but please understand your limitations, read the label on the back of the bottle and engage a GIS professional as required.” Of course, that is not nearly as snappy and probably would not fit on a tee-shirt either. 


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