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The Age of Geographic Enlightenment

Jack Dangermond is the Founder and President of Esri Inc.

In the past, GIS has been one of those edgy, niche technologies that required some skill to take full advantage of its capabilities. However, today’s GIS is easier to use and, therefore, more accessible to the masses. Moreover, data providers offer massive amounts of quality information, well worth accessing. Within just a few years, these proficiencies have driven the growth of GIS applications around the world and in nearly every industry. GIS is awakening the world to the power of geography and bringing us into an era of geographic enlightenment.

Because people use platforms to connect to shared information, we are seeing systems of intelligence come together as multi-intelligent systems that elevate geographic understanding to the highest decision-making levels

The outcome of this geographic enlightenment is a different pattern of usage, supported by Web infrastructure. At its genesis, GIS was operating on mainframe computers and used by a very small community. The advent of intelligent workstations opened opportunities for organizations to use GIS to meet specific missions — missions being a usage pattern.

Operating on a client server, GIS has become the traditional configuration for many mission-oriented industries. In this space, people primarily use GIS as a system of record to see, for instance, property taxes, the location of valve points in a city’s water distribution system, or how many barrels of oil an oil well produced last year. The configuration also drives GIS software’s capacity for analytical modeling, which enables law enforcement, health and safety agencies, and others, to solve problems.

Platform integration, smart devices and the IoT

Now we are in an era of Web technologies that drives Cloud software and data services; platform integration, smart devices, the Internet of Things, and so forth. These technologies are changing the objectives of GIS developers from designing specific applications focused on a single project to configuring a platform for larger deployment via Web services. Such advancements are diverting GIS usage patterns from a mission-oriented platform toward a social geography platform.

We are shifting our focus from the client/server configuration to Web services and applications. This transition includes moving from standalone desktops toward connected desktops, from static to real-time data visualization, and from custom apps to configurable templates. Our designers have created developer toolboxes that help IT staff design focused apps that target one or two tasks rather than having to create all-purpose applications, which generally do everything. Web GIS allows us to manage Big Data, including real-time sensor input, in ways that make it more useful to more people. Esri is shoring up solutions for an increasing number of satellite and field sensors. By connecting smart devices to networks, users get a larger picture of what is happening where and when. This has brought us closer than ever before to geography as a platform.

Web GIS is not making traditional GIS obsolete. Integrating traditional and Web GIS only makes the geographic platform more capable. That is to say, integrating the capabilities of the traditional GIS system of record with many dynamic Web services increases the value of GIS by enriching the data itself and expanding the system’s usage. This opens more opportunity for application development and a better user experience.

IT and GIS professionals feed their organizations Web apps that make the system of record and GIS tools more accessible, thereby extending the geographic advantage throughout their communities. Using this tactic, the City of Boston has grown its GIS user base from 100 people to 6,000 in just a few months. Without requiring a lot of organizational change, Web GIS now allows citywide access to geospatial information.

Multi-intelligent systems

Because people use platforms to connect to shared information, we are seeing systems of intelligence come together as multi-intelligent systems that elevate geographic understanding to the highest decision-making levels. Open access to open systems via Web GIS will, hopefully, compel agencies to more readily share geographic information and better collaborate.

GIS maps and cartography are becoming a normal part of executive-level communications and strategic decision making. Every morning, the president of the United States looks at story maps as part of his daily briefings. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention employed Web GIS to effectively contain the spread of Ebola. The US Postal Service is finally operating in the black, partly because GIS helped reduce its logistic costs by 20%.

People who use Web GIS do so in different ways and for different purposes. Many simply use it as a measurement tool. Others include these measurements in sophisticated geospatial models for scientific assessment and predictions. Next, there are users that interpret models for decision making. For instance, Starbucks uses GIS models to place stores, and Walmart uses them to decide where to buy products. Another level of usage is one that applies GIS to planning and policy-
making projects that benefit society.

Sensors measure everything in a city in real time. By combining Web GIS with the Internet of Things, in which everyday objects have network connectivity, cities are transforming into smart communities. City services can do advanced analytics, such as measuring city vehicle gas tanks, monitoring parking meters, and measuring traffic flow, and see these events on maps happening in real-time.

By pushing geographic information and knowledge to society, users create repeating cycles that continue to increase information system integrations. These iterative processes are a means to bring disparate social groups together so that they can collaborate on solving social problems. The reason open data is so important is that all types of people can access it and use it to become more engaged with their businesses, their communities and society.