Geography is everywhere. Of course, being a geographer I would say that. But for many people geography means a list of state capitals and perhaps the atlas published by the National Geographic. I’ve just come back from the 2015 Esri user conference in San Diego and saw first hand that this is changing quickly. While much of the discussion was about new software and tools, the most exciting change is the way these tools are deployed.
Just as Google maps has transformed the way we navigate our world (when was the last time you used a paper map?!), spatial decision support tools are transforming the way we understand the world around us and how we make collective decisions. GIS – geographic information systems – is the tool enabling this transformation.
GIS is not a new technology. It’s at least 40 years old in its modern incarnation and I’ve been using it for about half this time. Having just spent a few days at the Esri user conference, it is clear that the power of GIS as a decision support tool is on the verge of being brought into the heart of the public domain. It’s exciting and has the potential to transform the way we live, work, and govern.
A number of trends are converging to make this possible.
- Data is being collected in real time and near real-time. Our GPS enabled smart phones are at the front line of this data collection revolution. They are being rapidly joined by an army of drones, and matched up with unprecedented satellite images being updated on a daily basis.
- Data is shared and available 24/7 on the cloud rather than being hoarded on hard drives. From the latest Landsat image, to a live twitter feed, to projections of sea-level rise, we all have access to curated and constantly updated datasets. Served up through a geoportal, you can quickly find what you’re looking for and know that you’re accessing current data.
- Powerful GIS analysis and publishing tools are available online. I no longer need a UNIX workstation, thousands of dollars of software, and an expensive plotter to conduct and share an analysis. Using ArcGIS online, or one of the other freely available online tools, I can quickly publish and share work.
Bring these three threads together and real-time analysis is available to anyone. In the classic production cycle, experts would take weeks to conduct a static analysis that was shared with the decision makers as a printed map. There was no way quick or easy way to interact with the results. Most of your time was spent preparing the data, rather than conducing the analysis. In the end, the decision maker had to accept what the map said – or risk another lengthy cycle to change things up. It was the classic top-down approach.
Now, I can throw the data up a on a web-site — pulling data feeds from many different places — and give the users simple ways to explore and visualize the data. They can dig in and draw their own conclusions. Or I can walk them through a story map to help them understand what is going on.
This will fundamentally remake the way decisions are made. The environmental review process for development and land use projects can become interactive. Companies can understand spatial trends in real time. In essence, decision making will become democratized as everyone has access to relevant data and analysis.
Does this mean GIS professionals will whither away? Far from it! Rather than just being the folks you go to to make a map, they’ll be at the core of how we collaborate and make shared decisions. Sounds like fun to me!