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Mainstream or Specialist?

David J. Maguire
Director of Products and
International, ESRI

GIS is now a mature, sophisticated and quite a broad field encompassing everything from mainstream informational technology and business issues, such as services-oriented architectures, patent law and public sector information pricing, to specific geographic issues, such as scale, projection, and the spatial distribution of geographic phenomena.

Some commentators believe that GIS is just another type of information system, while others are adamant that it is unique and worthy of special consideration in its own right. Let us explore these two perspectives in the context of recent developments in IT and GIS.

The last decade has been a momentous one for many areas of business, science and technology. The web really has changed much of what we do and has pervaded a substantial portion of our working and personal lives. First our work environments were computerized and now the latest trend is the fusion of communications and information technologies in the form of new media (integrated sound, video, messaging and eventually system control).

Advances in mobility technologies are being incorporated into the new information systems. This has been a boom time for geographic information and processing. The world is finally waking up to the geographic advantage of organizing assets, events and processes geographically.

Increasingly we are seeing infrastructure (such as roads, railroads, buildings and land parcels), combined with features of interest (such as the climate, businesses, and landmarks), and geographic events (such as swap meets, sporting/cultural events and traffic accidents). Geographic technologies and methods are slowly working there way into mainstream information technology.

The major database vendors, IBM and Oracle (and eventually Microsoft), have the ability to manage basic spatial data types and manipulate then using basic query operators. Mapping has been ‘free’ on the web for over a decade now and the early pioneers have been joined by MapQuest, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft. No one expects to pay for basic street maps and for finding (geocoding) points of interest and routing between them. Most recently, the world has gone 3D with the introduction of geographic exploration systems that allow easy browsing of global imagery and associated geographic data sets. Maps form the basis of in-car navigation systems, many phones have locational awareness built-in and it seems that we are able to track almost everything from teenage children, to supertankers containing valuable cargo.

Many of the technologies using in these example applications are now being released as open source and are freely available at no cost for many uses. This is a sure sign of the maturity of the application domain and the core technologies.

It is clear from all of this that GIS is being embedded in many mainstream applications and that its popularity is rising rapidly. It is tempting to think that all the geographic problems have been solved, that there is no further need for research and development, and that we are now into the age of geographic information exploitation or commodification. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth!

Mainstream geographic information applications typically focus on information use, not creation or update. They usually concentrate on basic display and query operations, rather than more advanced and complex editing and analysis tasks. Allowing a user to select a map tile on server that represents their area of interest and displaying this quickly in a web browser is a far cry from compiling a high quality geographic database from multi-source information (field survey, aerial imagery, existing vector data, etc.).

The latter requires that we model complex geographic workflows, develop advanced geometry manipulation tools, and manage database integrity and quality. In short, mainstream applications work best for relatively simple, well-defined problems that need to be repeated many times. It is much less easy to go mainstream with complex, problems that require a lot of ad hoc data manipulation and analysis.

There are still many challenging areas of GIS that are in the research and development phase and it will be some time before they break through into the world of everyday use. A few examples will serve to illustrate that much remains to be done.