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“To be successful, GIS must be written specifically for the Internet”

Chris Harlow, Founding President, GITA and Editor, The Harlow Report
Email: [email protected]

“To be successful, GIS must be written specifically for the Internet”

Chris Harlow, Founding President, GITA and Editor, The Harlow Report (www.theharlowreport.com), talks to [email protected] about the future of GIS in emerging knowledge-based society

  • What milestones in last two decades have made an impact in the growth of GIS?

    Two decades covers a lot of territory. I am sure that there were milestones that were important when they occurred, but seem superfluous now. For example, in 1984 I made the statement that I thought the biggest challenge to GIS was database management, not graphical representation. Years later I was told that the people at that meeting thought I was off base. So, from my perspective, the number one milestone is the fact that the industry now recognizes that GIS must be supported by full fledged database management systems such as Oracle. On a less personal note, here are some other key milestones: Movement from centralized mainframes and minicomputers to desktop workstations.

    Movement from UNIX platforms to NT PCs and workstations.
    Formation of AM/FM International (now called GITA), because it gave a formal educational and industry focus on a fledgling technology.
    Development of lower cost GIS tools such as MapInfo, ComGrafix, etc.
    Development of view-only GIS beginning with ArcView or Arc Explorer.
    Withdrawal of IBM from the AM/FM/GIS market.
    Use of Internet and Web applications.
    Integration with other software such as spreadsheets and word processing.
    Entry of AutoDesk into the market.
    Use of object databases.
    GE acquisition of Smallworld.
    True deployment of the technology to solve real problems. That is the movement of GIS from concentration on data and map conversion to application building.
    Continuing milestone: Jack Dangermond’s tireless efforts as a GIS envangelist. No single person has done more to spread the word about this technology.

  • What does your crystal ball say with regards to the future of GIS based application in emerging knowledge-based society?

    To be truly successful, GIS must move to the background, and allow the user applications to shine through. Except for the technically oriented, the average user doesn’t refer to software by its underlying technology. We don’t refer to our Oracle system, we refer to our accounting system, our purchasing system and so on. As long as we insist on focusing on GIS, we can’t move beyond a relatively small market. After almost three decades, Daratech says this market is only $845 million (US) worldwide. That’s not all that impressive.

    Have you ever heard a politician run on a platform of better GIS? Of course not. But, they will run on a platform of public safety, economic growth, better traffic management, infrastructure management, more schools, strategically placed fire stations, more schools, hospitals, and so on. All these needs can be helped through GIS-based analytical tools, but are not necessarily GIS.

  • Is there any remarkable contribution to the GIS from Asian region over the last two decades or has it been more of the box pushing in this region.

    Off hand, I can’t think of any strong worldwide commercial products. Unquestionably, though, the Asian region has greatly contributed to the worldwide conversion of GIS data. Lately, in the US, it seems that conversion companies based in India and Singapore are leading the way.

    As for commercial GIS products, the differences in Asian population and infrastructure make it necessary to push the underlying technology. When I was developing an AM/FM/GIS system for Malaysian Electric, the core technology was from the US. However many applications were very specific to Malaysia. some differences were cultural, some were technically necessary, and some may have been imaginary. While such changes in themselves may not have a large direct impact on GIS packages, they add to the general body of knowledge. Thus, new ideas and approaches are tried, and thus adapted in the general technology.

  • Asia is said to heterogeneous in terms of economy, technology, skills and approach. During your various project in Asia what did you feel was the homogenous factor with specific reference to GIS.

    Any observer of Asian business and political strategy immediately sees the emphasis on the long term goals. In the U.S., the focus is often on quarterly results. These philosophies are consistent in the software development fields as well. I was impressed with the Asian patience and understanding that GIS is for the long-term good of the organization. Therefore, it was necessary to make long term investments in technology. Urban congestion in proportions almost unheard of in the West also had an impact on development. I think anyone would agree that the management of the underground infrastructure in Tokyo is a bit more difficult than most areas of the world.

    I also appreciate the challenges faced in the Asian region, because they began their AM/FM/GIS development based on US-based technology. These were English language based systems that were to be used by countries with an entirely different representation of their alphabet. I clearly remember the challenges faced by the GIS pioneers at Osaka Gas and Tokyo Electric. You have to be impressed with developers who must overcome technology challenges and language barriers at the same time.

  • How good is anyone at absorbing GIS?

    Part of this question is answered above. Beyond that, you have to ask if “how good is anyone at absorbing GIS?” Some people in the US don’t get it yet. Asia and Europe have special problems that don’t exist in the US. Our population is dense only in a few cities, our infrastructure was not ravaged by war, we are a young country, and we are a rich nation that can afford technology. Fortunately, many of our founding fathers were surveyors and architects. That does give us a leg up on land management issues. It is quite one thing to convert a paper map of a sewer network to a electronic image, and another when no maps exist in the first place.

    Worldwide, the GIS experts and pundits may have missed the market on just what GIS is all about. It must become transparent to be ubiquitous. In its simplist form, I define GIS as the “relationship between an asset or an event and a location.” If you accept that definition, than you have wonder why the technology is not more widespread. It broadens it use into almost every aspect of our lives.

    So, if the Asian Region doesn’t absorb GIS as we do in the west, that’s great. If everyone misapplied the technology, then maybe it would, in fact, be properly applied.

  • When do you think will the incubation of Internet GIS will be complete. Or you feel it is already out in the market in best form. Could we see some standardization accepted by GIS industry worldwide?

    We have not even begun to absorb GIS on the Internet. For that matter we haven’t begun to absorb the internet in general. To be successful, GIS must be written specifically for the Internet. It must have smaller file sizes and must be simple to use. Here is the real challenges: I think you would agree that it usually takes several months for an individual to become proficient in using most GIS packages. Compare that the Web surfing. How much training does it take to learn to point and click? GIS must be that simple to be successful on the web. Say goodbye to proprietary database management systems, and GIS file types. Open GIS must come before the incubation period can move into true production.

  • The fusion of passion with technical competence can be described as ÒThe Harlow ReportÓ. (https://www.theharlowreport.com) Comment

    True, I do get passionate. Depending on your view, I might be the industry’s biggest fan, or its biggest critic. It is one reason I don’t accept advertising. Keeping The Harlow Report as a newsletter gives me the freedom to question, probe and wonder.

    When I look at the industry, I try to focus on the management and the implementation aspects of the technology. When I tell my readers about a new product, I try to just give the overview and the specs. I can’t presume to know if the product will work in their environment. For example, is Smallworld a good product? Well, it is very competitive in the utility market and those who use it like it. But, I think that there are better products for marketing analysis, school bus routing, and congressional redistricting. The point is most products are technically good. What makes them look bad is when they are applied improperly. Technically I can generate a letter using Excel, or Powerpoint. But wouldn’t I be better off with Word? So, for the deep technical side, I let the readers decide.

    I enjoy giving advice on implementation, and looking at the people behind the technology. I guess I might also add that I am not shy about mentioning the blunders as well. Then, because GIS can be terribly boring, i try to add a touch of humor to make the day go by a little faster. We even offer a cartoon of the day on our web site. What I find interesting is when my passion gets to the audience. I get a kick out of the complaints, because they almost always begin with “Although I am not a reader, nor would I ever be a reader of your newsletter … .” Then, some how they have a complaint about something I wrote. But I have a secret weapon. I go back and reread the words I actually printed – rarely do they match the quote in the complaint. Ah, the joys of public praise!