Still Much Fog as Cloud Technology Sweeps into GIS Arena

November 18, 2010

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Despite a renewed emphasis on GIS as a Service and GIS in the cloud there is still some confused thinking about what the move to cloud technology means for geospatial information systems and how they might be used and deployed in the coming years.

I attended and spoke at a recent summit on Location Intelligence in the Cloud and was heartened to see a significant interest in GIS as a Service as users attempted to get to the bottom of what cloud computing combined with GIS would mean for them. At the same time, however, I felt a huge number of the presentations at the event seemed to miss the most important point. There was far too much focus on how the cloud might impact the relatively small existing GIS user base and not nearly enough information about how GIS as a Service is primed to serve an entirely new audience with geospatial capabilities, far above and beyond the existing market.

Much of the debate regarding GIS in the cloud to date has been about how it can be harnessed to balance license and hardware costs, and improve the capabilities and reach of existing GIS users' applications. There has been a lot of talk about the flexibility of cloud computing and Software as a Service. It could mean that a typical large-scale client-server GIS application would be able to scale up even further by taking advantage of cloud-based server capacity at peak times, when complex analyses need to be carried out, or when new maps are being rendered. It could mean enabling customers to take advantage of average licensing usage schemes rather than having to always invest in licenses to cover peak usage.

That's great as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough. One of the big problems with GIS today is that it is seen as specialist tool, available only to a limited number of people in a limited number of organizations. GIS as a Service offers the potential to significantly change both the perception and the reality of the situation. Rather than just replacing or augmenting today's client-server solutions, GIS as a Service will change the game entirely by making GIS capabilities available to potentially hundreds of millions of users.
GIS as a Service will enable more and more businesses to take their basic business data and use them more efficiently and effectively to generate new business, manage existing customers and market to a targeted audience.

So, who will use GIS as a Service, and for what?
The uses go much further than putting your business location on a map. It will be used for a variety of functions, with leading examples including refining demographic and market analysis, understanding the distribution and use of assets, and supporting mobile professionals. Initial examples are likely to be aligned with call centers, e-commerce activities, field service, and sales and marketing organizations.

Some other examples that are starting to emerge include using GIS technology to enhance existing services to give your business a competitive edge in a tough market, like the recruitment business that is using GIS to match suitable candidates with jobs in their area. Candidates can zoom in to find jobs closest to their location or zoom out to find more jobs but further away. Another example is communications companies that use GIS to map out network plans, for example long term evolution (LTE),  the next generation beyond 3G wireless broadband, or fiber optic cable planning.  This is particularly helpful to sales and marketing departments as they plan their campaigns in areas where the new services will be available.  There are multiple potential applications for GIS as a Service in the travel industry that have yet to be widely deployed, from tracking air and ground transportation to helping customers select holiday locations based on their proximity to certain essential services or leisure activities. And with GIS as a Service even the smallest transport business can afford to use a service that optimizes and calculates the cost of delivery routes. These are just some of the business cases for accessible, low-cost GIS. However the real beauty is that with the easy sign-up and low pricing in a pay-as-you-go model there really is no telling what the uses could and will be!

It's hard to get precise figures but there are probably about three million users of high-end desktop and client-server GIS solutions today. But we know there is an untapped appetite for GIS capability that isn't being served by today's client-server applications. They are either too expensive, too complex or take too long to implement. However, when GIS-like functionality is made available to users, they lap it up - just look at the uptake for consumer mapping products such as Google Maps, Bing Maps and Yahoo! Maps. Current thought is that nearly a billion people have used Google Maps to some extent and at least 500 million have downloaded Google Earth. In August, Google announced that more than 100 million people per month are using its Google Maps application from a mobile phone to get directions and find local businesses. The news about Google Maps for mobile came one day after Facebook unveiled its Places application: a Web service that lets users check in and alert their friends to their location.

Spatial capabilities are fast becoming a base-level expectation for more and more information systems; spatial search is improving; and more spatial data are being generated by billions of devices such as cell phones, networked sensors and RFID devices. But there is still a huge gap between desktop GIS and consumer mapping applications. That gap can be filled by GIS as a Service, which can provide modular, reliable and accessible spatial capabilities that can be embedded within any information system by users, services providers and developers.

The GIS sector needs to change dramatically if it is going to avoid being left behind in the new geospatial wave. In Geofrey Moore's book Crossing the Chasm the author deals with bridging the market gap between visionaries (or geospatial professionals, in our case - a relatively small segment of the market) and pragmatists (corporate and consumer channels - a much larger segment). It could be argued that GIS, after more than 20 years of existence, still hasn't crossed the chasm and is in fact stuck in a “bowling alley” - another Geofrey Moore analogy describing a technology that has gained acceptance in one or more niche markets, but hasn't crossed the chasm into wider market acceptance. I believe GIS as a Service will take GIS across the chasm and push it into the tornado, as Moore describes in his book Inside the Tornado, a metaphor for the exponential growth that can occur when a technology really takes off.

eSpatial's full function GIS as SaaS delivering real business intelligence. (Click for larger view.)


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