Monday, July 27, 2009

How "neogeography" is rapidly moving into the "GIS" space

I thought I would do a post or two to set some context for the upcoming geothought “top 10 most influential people for the next 5 years” list, that I recently posted about. In summary, I see the next 5 years being a period of major disruption for the traditional geospatial industry.

As I have mentioned many times over the past several years, Clayton Christensen discusses in his book The Innovator's Dilemma how "disruptive technologies" start out focused on a different market, and don't address all the needs of the current "mainstream market" (traditional GIS in our case), but over time their capabilities increase to the point where they can address the needs of the mainstream market, typically in a way which is much cheaper and simpler than the previous technology. This disruption is now happening very quickly in the "neogeography" space, even though many people in the traditional GIS space remain largely unaware of it.

At several conferences I have attended recently - Where 2.0, WhereCamp and State of the Map (SOTM) - I have been struck by the amount of activity and innovation in areas that would have previously been regarded as firmly in the domain of "traditional GIS". I'll mention three: cartography, data creation and analysis.

There were multiple workshops and presentations on cartography and how to design nice looking maps at Where 2.0 and SOTM. For example, look at this presentation by Andy Allan on "Advanced OpenStreetMap Cartography":

Not only are the maps shown in this presentation generated using (free) tools like Mapnik that probably most traditional GIS people have never heard of, they are all using crowdsourced data that was captured by "amateurs" for free. Still think you need to be a highly trained GIS professional using sophisticated and expensive software to create professional looking maps?

Stamen Design is a company that presented at both conferences that has done some really impressive work creating beautiful maps and web sites - for example check out their Oakland Crimespotting site (which also uses OpenStreetMap data) and this beautifully designed hurricane map for MSNBC, which I think does a fantastic job of making it really easy and intuitive to dynamically filter different aspects of the data. Stamen has also created the innovative Walking Papers site, which is a brilliantly simple way of allowing people to update OpenStreetMap using paper maps - see a video and slides (PDF) of Michal Migurski's presentation at SOTM (which also briefly covers some other interesting projects). I have seen similar ideas to Walking Papers in the traditional GIS world, but as with many of these neogeography projects, what stands out with this is its simplicity and ease of use.

Another great example of progress on the data creation front is of course OpenStreetMap itself. I really like the browser-based Potlatch editor which is currently the main browser-based tool for editing OSM data. It takes a little learning (though not much by traditional GIS standards), but combines fairly simple functionality on the surface with some pretty sophisticated capabilities underneath which dynamically create network connectivity as you create objects, with easy ways to split and merge roads, etc. This is all functionality that until recently has required a sophisticated GIS - now all you need is a web browser. The next step forward in this area should be the Mapzen editor from Cloudmade, which if it lives up to the promise of its screenshots and description should be a huge step forward in usability for data creation and editing tools.

On the analysis front, many people are doing interesting things, one of the most notable being FortiusOne with their GeoCommons site and GeoIQ product. I am a big supporter of their philosophy that easy to use geospatial analysis tools should be available to anyone, whereas there is still a prevailing view in the traditional GIS industry that this should be the domain of specialized "GIS professionals". Several of the Stamen projects, and a variety of other presentations at Where and SOTM, included interesting geospatial analysis without the use of traditional GIS.

I could go on with more examples but this gives a general idea of how many new and innovative players are coming into the application space previously occupied by traditional GIS vendors. These new systems are in most cases some if not all of the following:
  • Easier to use
  • Easier to implement
  • More scalable
  • Free or cheap (often open source or with an open source component)
So big change is coming, and my list of the top 10 influential people for the next 5 years will be focused on those who are making this happen! To traditional GIS people who still think that neogeography is something different from what you do, I really encourage you to look more closely at some of these new tools and companies. I would also say to neogeography people who are working in these areas, try to spend some time chatting to a friendly "paleo" or two - while there is value in taking a fresh approach to these problems, there's also a lot of relevant experience that has been accumulated over the years that may be useful and avoid some reinvention of wheels (which I've seen a little bit of - though the benefits of a fresh approach far outweigh the drawbacks).


Dennis Nazarenko said...

An interesting post - and as you say, a conversation that will continue for some time. While the neogeography may present threats to the traditional GIS community, its emergence also offers new opportunity. It will be interesting to see who among the traditional GIS technology and service providers fall by the wayside and which ones will seize the opportunities presented to them.

Peter Batty said...

This post generated an interesting discussion on twitter, which I copied and posted here.

dk said...

Wot no PublicEarth! ;-)

yes still old school comment posting for me...