“GIS is not as simple as it used to be.”

As part of my job in the global energy industry I meet a lot of geoscientists. Highly passionate about all aspects of earth science, they’re geologists, geophysicists, or environmental scientists. They use GIS daily but don’t consider themselves to be GIS professionals any more than they are Excel or software professionals. For them, GIS is a means to an end.

When one geoscientist recently said that “GIS is not as simple as it used to be”, it pretty much summed up the mood I’m picking up in a lot of places.  The state of GIS, data and IT are a big frustration. The geoscience community has been using geospatial tools for decades, but the issues they face with GIS have remained unchanged – in fact, they’re getting worse.

The technology has advanced dramatically in recent years, so what’s going on?

Photo: Futureatlas.com via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Photo: Futureatlas.com via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Geoscience ain’t Google or Facebook

We all know how to fire up Google Maps and look for the nearest coffee shop, but geoscientists do not have that luxury. Their data comes from everywhere: digitised from analog sources, scraped from literature or intelligence reports, imported from spreadsheets, dug up from archives, copied from network drives, extracted from databases, downloaded from web feeds.

As geoscientists forensically piece together their story – say, an environmental impact study, or the potential of a gas field hidden under a mile of sand or water – there are as many data formats as datasets. This is quite different to internet companies whose businesses are built on data that is natively digital: they can simply plug in the firehose and suck up whatever comes out.

So when geoscientists have painstakingly assembled their data, the last thing they need is a GIS that doesn’t do what they need, or is like brain surgery to operate.

What has GIS ever done for geoscientists?

From the perspective of a geoscientist, there has been little progress in the world of GIS. If you put yourself in their shoes, this is what we’ve given them over the past decade or so:

First, there were the delusional aspirations of standardizing everything, so that data conversion would no longer be required. The world would consist of spatial data infrastructures and portals, seamlessly joined together by open standards. We all know what happened to these, because no GIS professional today can survive without FME or GDAL. Most industries do not operate like the public sector. The “spatial is special” mantra merely reinforced data silos, hampering integration with other domains.

Coupled with SDIs, web-based GIS also proved that the GIS industry can take a perfectly simple web browser and turn it into a fiendishly slow and complex map system. This came in different incarnations until Google Maps finally put us out of our misery in 2005.

Meanwhile, desktop GIS has gone full-circle from being the professional’s tool to “everyone should use it”, and back to being the professional’s tool. Well, at least it is no longer pretending to be simple, and vendors can now freely praise its complexity as sophistication.

More recently arrived the mobile mapping apps, which – at last! – were simple to use (probably because they were not designed by GIS people). But alas, it is quite a leap from finding the nearest Starbucks to doing geological data interpretation. And so again, the geoscientists fell through the cracks. GIS vendors, forced to respond to the threat of internet mapping start-ups, spread themselves very thinly and ended up pleasing neither its new nor its core user bases.

Then finally came Open Source, the saviour who was going to deliver long-suffering GIS users from the evil clutches of proprietary vendor lock-in. Great. Except that, open source GIS is still GIS. It’s still growing arms and legs, just like any other GIS. It tries to cater for every audience, just like any other GIS. Progress is measured in added functionality.  In this model it simply does not occur to developers to take something away to make it more usable. Steve Jobs would be horrified.

What happened to GIS empowering people?

Professional mapping can now be done in hundreds of ways including proprietary, open source, desktop, web/cloud-hosted, and mobile solutions. Faced with such an array of generic options, where everything is possible but nothing does what you need straight off the shelf, we’ll have to forgive the geoscientists if they’re not ecstatic about what’s on offer.

The task of making GIS usable for a particular purpose falls to the users themselves who, of course, have neither the time nor the skills to do it. Sure, there are partner developers who can provide add-ons or customisations, but that’s not the point.

GIS was always about empowering people. But GIS tools defeat their purpose when you need a whole GIS department to support basic workflows, and a whole IT department to support the GIS stack. People end up working for the technology, not the other way round.

So when the ever-quotable Brian Timoney recently tweeted that most enterprise GIS requirements would be satisfied with Google Earth and networked KML files on a shared drive, he was not far off the truth. Such a pragmatic architecture would certainly have its drawbacks, but in some scenarios it might be easier to work around these than create what you need with a ‘proper’ GIS stack.

It is not surprising that some geoscientists still feel nostalgic for ArcView 3. Sure, this might show their age, but in their eyes ArcView 3 represented everything that a GIS should be: simple enough to use, advanced and flexible enough to do something useful with. Of course, in a modern connected environment ArcView 3 would be woefully inadequate. But in today’s world nothing seems to have taken its place in terms of usability. QGIS comes close but unfortunately it’s beginning to look more and more like ArcMap, which it hopes to displace. For many geoscientists this is barking up the wrong tree.

First the cake, then the icing

To this day GIS has not truly offered geoscientists what they need. Where are the innovative solutions for dealing with the variety of geoscience data? Where are the productivity tools to simply assemble digital scrapbooks of georeferenced information? Where are the flexible data models that enable thematic harvesting and analysis irrespective of data type? Where are the analytical tools that can handle dirty and incomplete data without hours of pre-processing? Where are the predictive user interfaces that only show relevant options?

These tools are emerging, of course… but not in the GIS world. GIS software still assumes that the data is just there, nice and clean. And so it requires a lot of sweat, mud and tears before you even get there – many don’t.

Meanwhile, data mining and analytics packages are slowly absorbing GIS functions into their tools. From the open-source R to the proprietary SAS, many now come with mapping functionality as a standard. It is the same with specialist geoscience packages, such as those from Schlumberger or Landmark. None of these may ever reach the full geospatial specification of a GIS, but why should they? Once you’ve got all the data in one place, with decent analytics tools mapping just becomes one data representation out of many. For illustration, just look at the SAS page above.

Spatial is not special. We in the GIS community have always assumed that because geoscientists like working with maps, they will always like GIS. This is not the case. If GIS is the icing, we first need to help our users bake the cake. If we don’t do it, somebody else will. And if the icing is too complex or expensive, they will just eat the cake without it.

UPDATE 09OCT13: This post has now received over 1,000 hits and 30+ re-tweets. Thank you. But there’s been relatively few comments… surely many of you won’t just simply agree? Agree or not, feel free to add more thoughts below.


14 thoughts on ““GIS is not as simple as it used to be.”

  1. Great post one which made me want to join in!

    I think for me at least, the problem isn’t that GIS is too complicated, I don’t think the tools have changed much for a while now (they have in UI design but not in analysis capabilities). What has changed is who uses GIS, and therefore what it is expected to do.

    Take my work where I use GIS to analyse and design cities and urban areas, the trouble like many people have, is that the tools I have to use are still stuck in the ‘geoscientist’ defaults not the designer/planner settings. Like you said I need to rely on 3rd party add-ons (or those hidden features and toolbars) to make it work nicely for me (I have never needed to use GDAL or FME, that’s because our big clients want a certain big vendors format and all our raw data is invariably in DWG or scanned image formats).

    I have found that this is changing and is probably partly what people are trying to get at when they use the term ‘geodesign’ (and that’s not entirely an ESRI ‘made up’ term…). Some in the GIS world are trying to join up disciplines and industries that have never been together before. Integrating my design decisions into the wider picture makes sense but inevitably the tools will get even more complicated as well as harder to use if we are not careful.

    What you seem to suggest “These tools are emerging, of course… but not in the GIS world” is that smaller developers are filling the gaps and the big GIS vendors are ignoring the complication issues. Well from my experience I think you’re quite right, some might know I am a big user and fan of CityEngine. This software came from a startup outside the ESRI bubble, designed more for the entertainment industry. I have found it more than capable of filling a niche in our workflows (and taking quite a few data formats that could be considered messy) that no conventional pure GIS software could ever fill. It’s quite difficult to use at first but when you realise it’s almost a ‘one trick pony’ (modelling 3D environments with a few reporting functions) the effect on my working life has been quite surprising. I’m not suggesting that CityEngine is GIS but it could be in a few iterations time and it fits that weird world between GIS, design and 3D in fact where my company works. Now all I need is the tools in my GIS to simplify the report writing and modelling… I wonder do you think we need GIS software to be broken down into even more specific industry parts and then simplified?

    My last thought is this: perhaps we shouldn’t rush towards simple tools for complicated solutions? Yes we all want an easy path to our conclusions, but most of us will have discovered something on a workflow that has made us question a particular analysis or conclusion. If we have software that hides that complicated business we’re beholden to the coders getting it right with no way of figuring (okay unless you’re using OpenSource and happen to be a coder) out where an error has crept in.

    Again a good thought provoking post, sorry if that comment was too long!

  2. Hi Elliot, thanks some great points in there! I think implicitly our positions both confirm that each industry has their own particular issues and requirements. This is exactly the problem GIS vendors face because, with their tools needing to work across multiple industries, they inevitably end up having to make compromises. On top of that, as you say, the reach of GIS has expanded to a larger user base, across many different disciplines, so expectations have also changed (although in the energy industry this may not be as marked).

    This was a difficult blog post to write. A number of times whilst drafting I lost the thread of what my main point actually was! There is a clearly an element of frustration in the user community and I tried to put my finger on it. Judging by the blog stats, and the reactions on twitter (almost 30 RTs and comments so far) this post has clearly struck a nerve, but I’m not sure whether people agree with the actual reasoning or just the general feeling.

    There are many issues at play, not just the tools or their perceived complexity. There is also the poor state of data, and people’s skills and capabilities, as well as expectations driven by consumer mapping apps. Then there is the fact that GIS has simply gone mainstream and become a victim of its own success – imitation is flattery, so many other tools now also offer similar functionality, as I wrote above, creating overlaps, confusion, and yet more potential for data issues.

    I guess the central theme is this: In trying to cater for everyone GIS is now running the risk of pleasing no-one. Fundamentally (and tech gadgets aside) the GIS offerings have not changed in over 10 years. In some ways they have become easier – if you know what you’re doing – but in other ways the endless possibilities and demanding IT requirements have made everything much more complex too. And despite all the technological advances, there has been little progress made with the data side of things. This problem is not constrained to GIS – dedicated geoscience apps suffer from the same issue. Maybe technology isn’t even the answer, but at the very least it should not make things worse.

    I’m agnostic about technology in any case. I couldn’t care less whether someone uses GIS or not. What matters is that people are empowered to use information in a way that helps their mission. If GIS can’t offer it, something else eventually will. This however would also be a shame because the GIS community has a lot to offer. And the fact that nobody has yet quite cracked the data problem, or the tech complexity, also presents a great opportunity. Whoever gets there first may literally hit a gold mine. But make no mistake: the data science & analytics world is progressing fast (much faster than GIS), and there are more than enough commercial and open source players who all want a slice of the action. We should not sleepwalk into assuming that because people use GIS today, they will also do so tomorrow.

    Thanks for commeting Elliot! Sorry I missed you at AGI/FOSS4G, will be nice to meet one day.

  3. A really interesting piece, and subsequent comments.

    I work for a fairly large organisation as a GIS Specialist. My personal opinion, and I came into GIS through a non-traditional route so perhaps have more of an ‘outsiders’ view, is that GIS teams or individuals tend to be viewed as specialists that function as very separate organisms, working to their own aims and objectives, as opposed to being seen and utilisted as a function that exists to underpin and support core aspects of a business. This most definitely the case within my organisation, where there is a reluctance by end users to embrace anything outside of a basic webGIS owing to perceived complication of use.

    I have a slight gripe with my own team, in that we often seem to be seeking to provide solutions to problems that are yet to exist – which often involve complicated processes completely alien to non-specialist users, and we advertise such things almost as the joys of GIS, illustraing “here’s what you can do” when really we should be asking “what would you like to be able to do?”. This is perhaps endemic to the industry, and it’s a stand I picked up on at the latest AGI Conference.

    It’s a conference I have attended now for a number of years, and from it I have perceived the GIS industry/community to be constantly attempting to move onto the next “big thing” (BIM – in particular!, Open Source, Open Data etc) without stabilising, and making best use for wider users, what it already has. This conference in particular seems now to be dominated by developers extolling the virtues of the latest platforms or methodologies, and whilst I personally find such things of personal interest, in particular Open Source, I rarely saw an example of GIS data and services being consumed effectively and more entirely by a business – something which is often indentified as a core objective of the industry.

    I appreciate that conference is aimed at GI Professionals, so what I have described can be expected, however, in the past it appeared to be more about increasing GIS awareness and seeking to improve the delivery of data and services to wider and more general users, as opposed to offering insights into quite specifc and on ocassion obscure aspect of GIS. I may be being a little unfair here, but often it seems to be about progressing what we are interested in personally as opposed to delivering what people actually want.

    Just my thoughts – great article.

  4. Thanks Kobi, great points – couldn’t agree more! What I hear all the time from geoscientists is that corporate GIS and IT support teams don’t really have the time or inclincation to listen to their needs, or don’t understand their business requirements.This can be alleviated by e.g. physically embedding GIS analysts within geoscience teams, but ideally we need to empower the geoscientists to do what they need to do themselves. This is where the tools and their IT-dependent complexity fail them, and they may eventually choose other alternatives.

  5. A major key here is to leave the majority of spatial data procurement, gathering and management (and worry about underlying IT) to the GIS pros (ones who also know what the business needs are). And, yes, we need FME for this. 😉

    We must limit the burden on the wider GIS user base in this regard so that they may focus on their true specialties.

    We must move data to information upfront where possible (build answers to common questions into our datasets). We must ensure freshness and quality in our data / information provisions. We must unequivocally master spatial data that is not mastered in main corporate repositories (WDM, SDM). Instead of trying to rope the moon, we must also encourage simple processes for data interchange, like publishing checkpoints for data that is (or needs to be) asynchronously mastered elsewhere (i.e. depth horizon / isopach sets).

    We must disseminate all of this through easy to use interfaces that encourage users to correct data errors rather than hide them. We need to give users opportunity to specify how they’d like to see their data. Small lessons in .LYR properties, symbology, labeling, queries and cartography go a long way toward creating sustainable, maintenance-free products.

    Once trust is built and a good base of data / information / process is in place, the progress pyramid rises quickly. Carrot after new carrot.

  6. I am going to release my own GIS software next year. It will be very simple: already containing world map, you can add your own layer in raster, shp, and csv format. Installing will be just unzip. Fully web based. I’ll inform you when it is released.

  7. @ Thierry_G

    I appreciate you’re thoughts. I am a geoscientist that has witnessed the advent and evolution of GIS and the associated industry. I recognize the dramatic progress that digital technologies like GIS facilitate, but operate in a limbo where I need the functionality of ArcGIS for using Lidar, AV GIS 3.x for custom generation of 2D and 3D features (using custom Avenue scripts that were left in the ESRI wake), and Google Earth for other functions including teaching Earth Science at the college level. I don’t know what the answer to many of the questions that you raise, but I have come to disdain planned obsolescence. I see parallels between GIS and the automotive industry…. Model T’s –> ARC/INFO, muscle cars –> ArcView, and now ArcGIS –> “I can’t work on my car anymore without computer diagnostics”. I have come to appreciate the mentality of open-source software where functionality and purpose still trump corporate profits. I don’t see an end to the trend towards specialization in the industry, but hope that Google keeps the basic innovations coming. In my mind, they are getting it right with their 4D approach, and it is THE only tool that I can use to communicate effectively with both novices and professionals alike. Thank you for your post.

  8. I have been in public sector during the times of arcview through arcview 9.3. This article is very accurate about how the boxed gis software is designed to work with clean data. Another ironic thing is that GIS is not a professional licensed industry, sure one can get a GISP designation, but one can practice without. I do like the author’s take on the very little maturity overall the softwares have ended up to be. This is a marketing driven business model more than raw function where word of mouth advertising is good enough for profits. Seems like with the updates that the icons change color, name, or position on the screen in order for the basic user to “feel” like something really big happend between versions and updates. I also agree FME is the most needed tool and the geograpic representation is starting to be a dime a dozen. To quote the head of IT where I used to work… “A geograpic position has one or many fixed points, granted, then there is data built on top of that position” “Once I have a position and the position doesn’t change I can hire anyone to write about it for far less wages and licensing fees than what the GIS industry calls for” @CadGISforhire

  9. Pingback: Frustration with GIS | Blue Ridge Spatial-Location

  10. Thank you for writing this post; it is one of the best articles I have read on the current state of GIS.
    You wrote, “GIS was always about empowering people.”
    I disagree; GIS has always been about empowering GIS people. The special-ness that GIS people have thought about themselves and GIS has done a large disservice to the GIS industry.

  11. Pingback: Thierry Gregorius: "Build a unique skill, stay focused, and never grow up"

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