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Trends in Geospatial - Will GIS Survive?

This item is part of the GIS - Special Issue - 07/2019, click here for more

As with any technology, geospatial is greatly influenced by the trends and advancements of related fields. These advancements change user expectations as well as bring capabilities that can transform the very core architecture of GIS. While some vendors adopt and drive change, many simply pay lip service to these changes. Marketing spin and brochures can slow the decline of GIS but fortunately, will not stop the inevitable. Utilities are at the forefront of geospatial enablement and are critical in driving the needed changes.

The geospatial market is ready for a major change in both scope and purpose. How will GIS be affected by these changes and will it survive?

Change is long overdue. The changing GIS Professional’s function along with expanding data availability and robust technology platforms will transform the GIS of the past to a future where geospatial holds the critical role it has long sought.

People

People are the core of GIS’ success. People select, buy and implement technology. Their backgrounds, skills, and bias’ are part of the ecosystem of a market. GIS has the benefit of many years of a robust, passionate and engaged user community. From vegetation management experts to utility executives, GIS captured the imagination and purpose of hundreds of thousands of users.

The beauty of GIS is that it has something for everyone. From engineers trying to better design a new network, to supervisors routing crews efficiently, GIS taps into the imagination to find new solutions. The limiting factors inevitable in all new markets were overcome with enthusiasm, creativity, and a little luck! The early adopters of GIS drove transformational change in their organizations that spanned department and geographies. Now, the trends in the community of GIS people are changing... driving exciting and in some cases unexpected changes.

As I have written about before, the role of the GIS Profesional is changing. A big factor in this change is the aging workforce. GIS Developers, Managers and Technicians are retiring. Their work laid the foundation that new geospatial experts are building upon to drive geospatial adoption globally. This new geospatial workforce is already changing how we look at the world. Data Scientists, Computer Scientists, Graphic Designers, System Architects, and Analysts are just a few roles that need geospatial expertise. With the tremendous shift in the broader technology world recognizing the importance of data, geospatial data and the keepers of it, have enjoyed broader exposure and integration. But it is not limited to data. The fascination of GIS is still alive today in a mind-boggling array of possibilities. From maps to the IoT, geospatial is taking its rightful place in the technology world!

Data

The availability of geospatial data and related data is growing extremely rapidly. From real and near real-time data to the availability of geospatial infrastructure data, the problem is often not the lack of data but too much data. The hard work of GIS Professionals enables this new data to be extremely useful. Geospatial infrastructure data and basemaps enable a foundation or context for sensor data, IoT information and satellite information to be used in ways never imagined. From vegetation management, scheduled outages and asset management to autonomous vehicles, geospatial data is driving enormous changes.

Technology

Technology is evolving at such a rapid pace, it is hard to keep up with. In most cases, any new technology you read or hear about has a geospatial angle. Embedded experiences with new breakthroughs in virtual reality and voice controlled devices often rely on location and geospatial context. Blockchain is being used to shorten, simplify and secure the supply chain and logistics by adding a location to its tokens.

Another example is digital twins that often require location and geospatial context to provide a full picture. While these technologies are on the cutting edge of adoption, artificial intelligence (AI) including deep learning and machine learning are being used by better leveraging geospatial infrastructure data and big geospatial data. Much of this progress is from the emergence of deep learning accelerators (i.e., GPU) into the mainstream allowing for extremely fast analysis and viewing of databases with billions of records with both geospatial and time information. 

Hardware

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Leveraging GPU’s to drive extremely fast visualization and analytics is just one-way hardware is driving changes in GIS. Distributed computing is another rapidly evolving trend that has tremendous opportunities for geospatial. Sensors and devices connect to the cloud (the IoT and edge computing,) are collecting tremendous amounts of data. With local geospatial processing on devices, real-time changes can automatically be made in the field. Combining weather information with immediate usage data allows a utility to adjust network configurations or change cell towers alignment to better support of customer calls. Expand this capability to the emerging IoB (Internet of Bodies) and the possibilities are endless. Knowing where something is located is extremely important but also how it is connected to other devices and how the geospatial attribute of these locations effect decisions is the secret GIS sauce that will change how we look at the world.

The proliferation of satellites and drones continue to provide unpreceded views of our world from large to small scale. The decrease in the cost of collecting data continues to drive innovation in the GIS and geospatial markets. 

Business Model

Traditional GIS companies continue to market their tools as a platform. For large utilities with vast geospatial holdings, this expensive approach has made sense. Today, however, developers and users are quickly integrating geospatial functionality into their solutions using open source or other lightweight tools. For many organizations, they can skip the enterprise GIS step and move right into geospatial analytics with readily available basemaps and spatial analytics. For example, utilities can easily show planned outages on an online map quickly and effectively using Google Maps.

The Open Source Geo movement is growing in members and scope. With big government agencies such as NGA embracing open source for GEOINT, funding is rapidly growing the toolset. This flood of tools provides a growing set of resources for developers looking to add geospatial capabilities to their apps for a fraction of the costs. Gaining control over the tools and the costs provides freedom to innovators building new apps at a much lower price. Do you have a great idea for a geospatially driven app but were turned off by expensive GIS software? Check out OSGeo and FOSS4G and get involved in the community!

What’s Next

The pace for change in the geospatial market is increasing. Data, technology, and business models are evolving and are in many cases being driven by GIS professions. Workforce changes empowered by data availability makes the future of geospatial bright. Will it be the GIS you grew up with? No. But the core values and diversity that drove the growth of this market will drive a new geospatial revolution

Linda Stevens's picture

Thank Linda for the Post!

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Discussions

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 9, 2019 11:16 am GMT

When you talk about how people drive GIS, I'm curious if there's even ways that the customers of utilities themselves will be the one driving GIS-- knowingly or unknowingly. Is there any evidence towards that?

Linda Stevens's picture
Linda Stevens on Jul 9, 2019 6:03 pm GMT

Hi Matt,

I do think that customers are just starting to expect modern apps from their utility. Examples related to GIS are outage maps, planned maintenance maps (with related traffic and outage information), emergency plans (think wildfire risks) and more. However, regulatory agencies are influencing GIS or geospatial adoption more than customers. Customers still take their utilities for granted. 

An interesting development is the use of utilities to crowdsource their assets. They are asking customers to take a picture of a perceived problem and send it to the utility. Cities have done this and now utilities are starting to think about how they can leverage their customer's eyes to help them prioritize problems. 

Linda

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 9, 2019 6:56 pm GMT

That's a great point about crowdsourcing the outlet-- I've sent a picture of a pothole to the city via an app, so the same could surely be done in the wake of storms to show where there are downed trees near power lines or other issues. Really exciting!

Linda Stevens's picture
Linda Stevens on Jul 10, 2019 12:58 am GMT

It can also be useful for utilities in dry and windy areas like California. PG&E is an example of a company that needs more eyes on their lines! 

Anna Phillips's picture
Anna Phillips on Jul 26, 2019 12:01 pm GMT

Linda, 

I have seen the evolving GIS profession and GIS data.  This is my 32 year doing GIS.  I have mapped a lot of roads, sewer and water mains, corrected some gas and electric lines.  My office now is reaching out to the field crews and the young guys are happy for the change and even some of the older are coming around.  However, they want the ease of mobile tablets for surveys and inspections but trade off is recording GPS locations with them verses a real GPS unit that gets sub-foot accuracy.  I have seen manholes jump from one lane to the other using tablets with “3 meter grade” GPS.  One young person I was teaching the GPS unit to stated, “the tablets are easier to use.”  Nevertheless, the tradeoffs will be down the road.  I hope future GIS professionals strive for accuracy in data, not just fast maps.

Just my pet peeve of the day.

Anna Phillips, GISP

Linda Stevens's picture
Linda Stevens on Jul 26, 2019 5:24 pm GMT

I agree. Accuracy is data is critical. Data quality is so often overlooked! Just because geospatial data is in the systems does not mean it is accurate and the subsequent users of the data need to know. 

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