Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Are we now in the post-neogeography era?

So all the discussion about my last post got me to thinking about how to define "neogeography". I was really using it in a pretty broad sense, as a convenient label for the “new generation” of web mapping tools and related technologies that have emerged over the past few years – essentially the “disruptive technology” that Clayton Christensen talks about. These systems include Google Maps and Earth, Virtual Earth, Yahoo Maps, and various offerings from smaller players. However, I feel that the distinction between “neogeography” and “GIS” is becoming increasingly blurred, to the point where it really doesn’t make much sense to even try to make a distinction in many cases.

As I discussed, “neogeography” systems are now increasingly being used for more activities that were in the domain of “traditional GIS”, including cartography, analysis and data creation. And “GIS” is increasingly using ideas that originated in neogeography systems, like using pre-rendered raster tiles for fast map rendering, implementing REST APIs, etc. The summary for O'Reilly's "Introduction to Neogeography", which is probably as good a source as any, says "Neogeography combines the complex techniques of cartography and GIS and places them within reach of users and developers". So according to that definition it's really about simplification, which is certainly a key characteristic of systems like Google Maps and Virtual Earth. But it's obviously not a hard and fast definition, and many efforts within the traditional GIS space could be said to have done the same thing, especially more recently as ideas have been taken from the first round of "neogeo" products.

I think that one other difference between those who describe themselves as neogeographers and those who describe themselves as GIS professionals is that the former see geospatial data as just another data type, whereas the latter tend to see it as something more specialized. But this also a continuum, and this difference in philosophy has been around in the industry to a large extent since well before neogeography arrived on the scene (but maybe with a smaller proportion of those with the first opinion).

So to me, the main point is that there is now a broader set of tools available to help address geospatial problems, regardless of what you call them. I think that many people in the traditional GIS world haven’t had too much exposure to these new tools, and a lot of people still have the mindset that they have selected a primary GIS vendor – ESRI, Intergraph, Smallworld or whoever – and they should only use geospatial software from that vendor as it will make their life easier. But it is really very easy to mix and match geo software tools these days, so it’s worth looking around at the various new options. But clearly there are still many tasks for which the best choice remains the current generation of traditional GIS. However, the traditional GIS vendors will face major price pressure over the next few years as the newer generation of simpler and cheaper systems mature.

So in summary I really don’t see much value in trying to define some tools as “neogeography” and some as “GIS” – to me it’s all just geospatial technology and you should choose the right tools for a given job. Maybe the term "neogeography" has outlived its usefulness and it should just quietly fade away, except as a historical term to describe the new geospatial systems that emerged in the past few years, before they interbred with traditional GIS and became just part of the new and richer set of tools that is now available for geospatial applications? Or we just regard terms like neogeography, GIS and geospatial technology as synonymous?


Tia Lobo said...

I think your points are good - but it pigeon-holes neogeography as a technical trend. Neogeography is more of a social trend. Your quote from Intro to Neogeoagraphy even makes that point - the technologies aren't necessarily new - the audience is significantly increased.

What is most interesting is that many paleogeographers (with the exception being the PPGISers) were so focused on the technology that they missed the social significance. Maps are being created by more people than ever. And the technology allows more people to use those maps. The result is a heightened geospatial awareness.

Just as geographers (even GIScientists) aren't going to pack up and go home, saying "our job here is done - everyone is mapping". Neogeography is going to continue to grow.

If we are post-anything in neogeography, we are post-technological or post-modern. The emphasis is quickly shifting from the technology-focused "how can we do this" to the society-focused "what can we do with it".

It's like tiles. The basic technology behind tiles is nothing new - but the importance of standards in tiles is grossly underestimated. Specifically, not having rich, standardized, license-free tilecaches directly impedes many social-good applications.

Steven said...

Nothing can remain new forever except perhaps neo-conservativism which was never new to start with.

The neo label is getting stale. Maybe we can find a new label to distinguish the more democratised or user centric geography that is evolving?

I don't think the key is whether we use ESRI or Google, OpenStreetMap or TeleAtlas but who is determining directions, user journeys and application areas. That in my opinion is what is changing.

Anonymous said...

I once had a girlfriend who worked in human resources. While helping me get my resume in order, she asked me about my job history, specifically what I had done at each particular job. I rattled off a list of job titles. She looked at me blankly for a moment, then said "I didn't ask what they called you. I asked what you DID."

I think this discussion follows similar lines. It's focused just a little too much on titles and semantics, and not enough on what, exactly, we do. Which, as we all know, is a little too broad to be easily pigeon-holed.

So I guess I'm just suggesting that we all stop worrying so much about what we call ourselves and just get back to work.

And on that note.....

Peter Batty said...

@wherewithal1 I agree, which is much the point that I was trying to make. The discussion started out with the main point that there are a new generation of geospatial tools that many "GIS" people may not be familiar with and that in many cases do things that may be useful to you much more simply and cheaply than the older generation of systems. Don't get hung up on the terminology - it doesn't matter whether the new system is called a "GIS" or not, look at what it does and whether it can help you do your job better.

Andy Anderson said...

Neogeography was always a bad label; it's time relative and not descriptive of why it's important. (Remember, GIS was neogeography forty years ago!) It's really unfortunate that it's made its way into a book title.

Anyway, I've had some discussions with other GIS professionals on what is a better name, and it's simply popular geography.

Recognizing that important characteristic, the ability of non-technical people to make maps of data they are interested in and publish them to the world, and there's nothing "post" about it.