The Top Ten GIS Stories of 2012

December 17, 2012

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Each year I pick out 10 events, ideas, themes, products, etc. that stood out over the preceding 12 months. So, in no particular order, here's this year's list.

Wither Our Professional Organizations?

It’s been quiet over at GITA since the organization began the transition to an all-volunteer effort in June. Former Executive Director Bob Samborski has joined the geospatial media. URISA celebrated 50 years at its annual event and looked back at history. The outgoing president looked forward, in a detailed treatise earlier this year and conferences continue to be scheduled and held, but the future is unclear. The International Map Trade Association changed its name to the International Map Industry Association to reflect its intent to encompass more of the mapping industry. MAPPS, an organization of a different sort, reminds its members of its value in this down economy, via a blog post.

Meanwhile, our peers over in Australia are banding their organizations together for the next big geospatial conference in 2014.
This is a good time to think hard about what we want from these organizations. If you’d miss any of these organizations if they were gone, it’s time to act.

Esri Acquires, Others Not So Much

The most talked about acquisitions of the year saw a meshing of the old guard with the new. Esri acquired GeoIQ in the summer (1, 2), then Geoloqi in the fall (1, 2, 3). Many were heartened to see Esri “getting serious” about neogeography, “open-ness” and LBS technology. Others wondered if these independent gems would unravel under the larger umbrella. (One high profile departure has not convinced me that’s the case.) Integrating the new technology into the Esri product development cycle is not trivial. I, for one, will be waiting until next year’s Esri User Conference to begin evaluating the value of these purchases to Esri, in particular, and the industry, in general.

ArcGIS Online

As promised, Esri began to roll out more tools (templates and the credit estimator, to name two) to help users understand and implement its cloud-hosted GIS, ArcGIS Online. The product is not yet the household, media or enterprise name I think the company expects it to be in time. This tweet from @mapgis (Marcel Fortin) sums up the state of affairs nicely:

Arcgis online - I don't know what I can use it for yet, but it sure is fun. Any UT students or faculty who want an account, please email me

This tweet from @michael_d_gould (Michael Gould) offers a use for it I’d not anticipated.

Esri partner Cybertech uses ArcGIS Online to promote and distribute its School Finder web app.  #bizmodel

Google Maps No Longer Rules

Once Google started to charge for heavy use of its API, many map creation platform players saw renewed interest in their offerings. OpenStreetMap marketed the “switch” as did deCarta, but MapBox seems to be the big winner. As I write on Dec. 4, the Twittersphere is lit up about the new MapBox satellite imagery offering.

Disappointment out of the gate for Apple Maps and Nokia’s HERE does not mean they won’t be serious players in time. Greg Sterling at Search Engine Land describes the new world elegantly.

Regardless, just a year or so ago it appeared that Google Maps had an effective monopoly on the segment. Almost overnight it now appears that there are multiple, strong competitors in the mapping space (not to mention several compelling startups) vying for consumer attention and usage.
That’s not an entirely accurate description of how things have evolved but that’s how it feels.

LBS is Dead to Me

I cut the coverage of location-based services way down at All Points Blog early in 2012. Why? I was not even the slightest bit interested in another tool to leave virtual messages at geographic locations, another tool to find my friends, or another tool to find deals. I was even a bit happy to see Color shut down (some of its tech team are at Apple, I understand) because I never understood the point. When Michael Jones of Google, who I respect a great deal, personally pitched that company’s Field Trip and Ingress to me, I still couldn’t get excited. Whether LBS is dead as a sector of the tech industry, I won’t pretend to know, but this year I know it’s dead to me.

The New Kid on the Geoblock Most Have Yet to Meet

I’m hopeful readers of this article are aware of MapBox (note above), but I’m pretty sure fewer know of D3. I’d heard of it in the latter half of the year, but finally dug into it when it came up in an interview with Richard Roth. What is it?

D3.js is a JavaScript library for manipulating documents based on data. D3 helps you bring data to life using HTML, SVG and CSS. D3’s emphasis on web standards gives you the full capabilities of modern browsers without tying yourself to a proprietary framework, combining powerful visualization components and a data-driven approach to DOM manipulation.

I can’t really speak to the tech, but the idea that data driven visualizations (some with spatial components, some without) is the current big thing, means the geospatial community needs to check out D3.

The Job Market

Sure the down economy has impacted geospatial, but trends look positive per GeoSearch. Still, there is much confusion about how to prepare today’s students for all those geojobs that are here now and will only grow in the coming months and years. Paul Ramsey argued that our current educational system is a bit of “bait and switch,” teaching the juicy bit (analysis) when most jobs are rather dull, rote affairs (data compilation, webmap construction) (podcast). A discussion over at LinkedIn (sorry, no public access) prompted one person to note that GIS certificates are no longer a ticket to a job as there are too many individuals with actual GIS master’s degrees.

There is one thing on which both sides of the education discussion (educators and those pursing education for a new job) agree: hands-on, real-world experience is the most valuable aspect of formal or informal education.

Remote Sensing Market Compression and Potential Explosion

Much of the geospatial community was at the Esri User Conference when it learned of the plan for DigitalGlobe and GeoEye to merge. The deal is now done moving right along [see cmoment below, 12/21/12], so far as I know.

Was this mega-merger a surprise? Not really, the U.S. government had been holding up both organizations (and a third, remember Space Imaging, now part of GeoEye, which resulted from its merger with Orbimage?) for some time. Let’s face reality: we love those satellite images, but they are very expensive to capture and the government linked business model does well only when the government is in the black.

At the other end of the aerial platform spectrum are inexpensive, seemingly simple-to-fly drones. Federal rules for civilian use of drones for data capture are still under development (see for example, the latest delay) but many are gearing up to take advantage of the expected demand. Unmanned Vehicle University sends me e-mails roughly twice a month to remind me of its courses and degrees. (Careful, it’s not accredited by a “real” accreditor in my opinion.) The Teal Group estimates that UAV spending will almost double over the next decade, from current worldwide UAV expenditures of $6.6 billion annually to $11.4 billion, totaling just over $89 billion in the next 10 years.

It will be interesting to see the small scale image collection market of satellites compress while the large scale one of drones potentially explodes in the coming months and years.

Geocompany Visions: Less GIS, More Connection

The companies I typically include in my short list of “GIS companies,” alongside Esri, are no longer talking GIS. They are talking something else, but still weaving GIS into their story. You can see it in discussions at their annual user events:
Hexagon - “Hexagon's senior management discussed a ‘connected world’ where it will be important to leverage the tools that can ‘model the world’ in order to understand ‘the real world.’" - Joe Francica, Directions Magazine

Autodesk - “The answer to the first question [Does Autodesk do GIS or offer GIS products?] is ‘Yes,’ it's just that Autodesk doesn't tout it very much.” - Joe Francica Directions Magazine
Bentley - “Bentley Systems has asserted for some time that its suite of mapping and civil engineering software is not only integrated but completely geo-enabled. This offers a seamless way to integrate design drawings with geospatial information. Every pipe, every wall and every foundation could be referenced to a point on the earth. The environment Bentley offers is ‘immersive GIS.’” - Joe Francica, All Points Blog, Bentley and GIS: From Basic Mapping to Immersive GIS

Trimble - “The [Trimble Dimensions 2012] conference explored the use of technology in a wide range of applications including heavy civil construction, building construction, survey, cadastral, geospatial, infrastructure, mapping and GIS, transportation and logistics, field service management, energy, utilities, natural resources and government.” - press release

So while Esri and perhaps a few other hard-core GIS companies like OpenGeo are holding tight to only that technology, others are at least talking about connections to, or roles in, larger, more complex solutions.

Can You Point Me to the Data Marketplace?

In years past there’s been talk of a data marketplace and notable offerings like Pitney Bowes Geosk (DM coverage) and WeoGeo’s Market have launched. So, too, has, now known as There are long lists of cities and provinces and countries with open data policies and datasets available for download. Many have held contests to promote use of those datasets (Illinois, for example). There are also public and private data portals where even the savviest of users must fight for dataset downloads.

Is it possible these still evolving “clip, zip and ship” solutions are pushing any big organization or in-the-basement developer who can to use a data service via an API like Google’s, Nokia’s, TomTom’s, MapBox’s or Esri’s ArcGIS Online? Those have their own issues, I know, but the market seems to be telling us ( is dead) it is time to retool the purchasing of a chunk of data into a reasonably priced, standards-based API subscription.


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