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Imagination is the limit

Joseph M. Joy
Software Architect
Microsoft Research, India
[email protected]

Web GIS can and should go far beyond the primarily business to consumer and consumer to consumer services made possible by popular online map service providers. Here are a few key enablers for achieving the full potential of Web GIS.


Healthy competition is a must to ensure continued innovation and quality of offerings. In the online map space, the fruits of competition are clear, with rapid innovation and coverage of services provided by online services like Google Maps, Microsoft Virtual Earth and Yahoo Maps. On the map data space, there is good competition, though it varies widely from region to region. It will be interesting to see how acquisitions of key map provider players Navteq by Nokia, and TeleAtlas by TomTom, will play out in the long run.


In large part, coverage and currency (how frequently data are updated) are driven by competition and business opportunities. However, there is another big driver in this space – the community. As the Wikipedia has soundly demonstrated, the worldwide Internet community is quite capable of generating valuable content and keeping it up-to-date. The community can be tapped in unexpected ways even to perform vital government functions. Consider the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAPD) use of Twitter. LAPD uses twitter.com to exchange latest developments on fire reports and fire fighting status with the community (see . Another interesting case of the use of community-generated data is the exploration of influenza (flu) trends by mining search queries (see https:// www.google.org/flutrends). I believe that there is enormous (and still largely untapped) scope to leverage the community to contribute and maintain structured GIS data for commercial and administrative purposes.


The government can play a very key role in enabling Web GIS scenarios. I believe the government should give special focus to scenarios that are not met by business to consumer scenarios (which are often well handled by businesses in an environment of healthy competition). Scenarios that deal with national security and safety, and the efficient use of resources are of prime importance.

For example, government could play a driving role in ensuring that comprehensive environmental data are collected and made available on the Web in a timely basis, as well in commissioning map data for those areas that are not well served by commercial map providers.


Standards will play a key role in enabling the mixing and matching data sources, Web-based data analytics and Web-based visualisation. Ongoing efforts by OGC are in the right direction. However, there is a danger of getting tied up with complex standards that will look dated in a few years.

How far can Web GIS go? I believe we are only scratching the surface. Once we have broad availability of rich and current data, and reasonably good standards in place, the limits are only our imagination. I am inspired by the work done by Hans Rosling, founder of the Gapminder organisation (www.gapminder.org). As you watch his wonderful animations that shed light on the evolution of the distribution of wellness and wealth over the world, you get the sense of the limitless possibilities of integrating complex dynamic content from diverse sources with powerful analytics, visualised using the graphics rendering capabilities of the latest generation of Web browser technologies.