Friday, December 7, 2007

Neo-pointless question of the moment: is this thing "GIS"?

There has been a flurry of discussion triggered by Joe Francica's post on "neogeography is not GIS" which I referenced in my previous post. I just wanted to make the comment that asking whether something is "GIS" just seems like a completely pointless question to me. "GIS" is not a well defined term. Many competitors of ESRI (my previous employers included) have tended to dislike the term since they feel it has been somewhat hijacked by ESRI - I couldn't find reference to GIS just now in a quick skim through the Intergraph web site and only one token reference at the GE Smallworld site. "GIS" is not an aim in itself (despite the quasi-religious attachment some people have to the term), it is a tool to help solve business problems. The "neogeography" systems clearly overlap significantly with the functionality provided by the traditional "GIS" vendors. And we have significant growth in the open source geospatial software arena, which you may or may not categorize as "neogeography" but it is another disruptive influence in the marketplace.

If you work in an organization that uses location data, or you are developing applications in this area, you just need to look at the tools which can help you work with that data and choose the best tools for the job, based on various criteria including functionality, cost, risk, etc. You shouldn't care what labels people may or may not attach to the various systems. There continues to be very rich functionality in the established systems which has been developed over decades, and the new generation of systems is not going to replace all of that any time soon. But probably 95% of the users of geospatial data use 5% of that functionality, and they are all very strong candidates for leveraging the newer generation of systems. If you work for an established "GIS" provider, you need to be working out how to leverage the new generation of systems in your solutions (be they from Google or Microsoft or open source or wherever), and figuring out how you continue to add value in this expanded ecosystem. Trying to fight the new systems head on, or dismiss them as not relevant to what you do, will not be a successful approach. But it is not a case of either "GIS" or "neogeography" (whatever both those things are), it is a case of mixing and matching the pieces that are important for your particular application. And as I said previously, I believe that the proportion of pieces which come from the "new generation" of systems (including open source) will increase rapidly.


Nixta said...
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Nixta said...

I for one welcome the revolution.

When I was at University passing through a computer science degree, my tutor declared that he had previously worked in "GIS". I hadn't heard the term before, and I asked him to tell me what that was. He couldn't (or rather wouldn't). In retrospect, he wasn't lying, and he had been working with Geographic Information Systems as they were defined back then (something to do with satellites and communications systems in Australia, I think), and he wasn't being difficult by refusing to try to define that.

When people ask me what I do it goes like this: I tell them I program computers. Then they ask what kind of software. I say "GIS". They either understand or look bemused, in which case I follow up with "Anything to do with maps". I find that generally covers it to any depth that I want to discuss it with a relative stranger.

I should just carry a flip-book of cards that I can just give them to... er... flip through. Or just start making stuff up.

Dave Smith said...

To get into semantics, one might argue that there's not really any GIS at all - typically GIS isn't the thing itself, it's the means toward an end. That is to say, there is no GIS just for the sake of GIS.

Instead, it's about supporting environmental science, transportation, planning, logistics, archaeology, resource management, and so much more.

And so where does NeoGeo fit in this millieu? Same place. It's in support of myriad public needs.

We need to stay focused on the big picture. Pull back from the plumbing and one can see there are houses, communities, and much much more.

Gord Allen said...

Never really thought about any particular vendor having bragging rights on the GIS moniker, but on second thought, I think you're on to something...

It's unfortunate that consistent terminology that could have described the technology to move us into the mainstream, gets hijacked or rejected for the sake of vendor marketing. That said, the term GIS has come a long way from when it was described as the domain of "birds and bunnies".

Back in the day, many of the big projects were associated with utility and telecommunications and only the brave would attach the GIS moniker after AM/FM (Automated Mapping/Facilities Management) and usually it was separated by an "and" and not a slash, i.e. AM/FM and GIS. The GIS, was that "stuff" that ESRI did... you know, "birds and bunnies". Now GIS seems almost respectable for even the engineering types and heaven forbid, "the enterprise".

It certainly has caused confusion over the years. Intergraph for one had the extra challenge of having their own "GIS" solution in Geomedia (there's that "Geo" name) and a "competing" utility/telecom solution which they never quite knew what to call it hence G/Technology or as some insiders called G/Stuff.

Up here in Canada we had our own term, "Geomatics"... a term which government caught on to, because it sounded almost the same in both English and French. Generally it was despised however in the vendor community and never caught on outside the country, but you could always spell it correctly in both official languages.

Why is it Oracle Spatial and not Oracle Geospatial? And MapInfo does not even have a "G" in it's product name.

In the end, to me the question of neo or geo or GIS is moot. After over 20 years in the industry as both a customer and a vendor of the technology, I finally don't have to explain to family and friends about what I do... you know, that blank expression you get when you say you work in GIS...

I just have to say Google Maps and it all becomes clear.