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Sunday
Nov152009

Reports of the Death of GIS are Greatly Exagerated

There have been some interesting blog posts recently predicting the death of GIS.  Don Meltz had a post on his blog the other day where he reflected some recent postings by Bill Dolans and others stating that because the availability of spatial data us becoming ubiquitous that there will no longer be a need for those that specialize in GIS for its own sake.  Don draws the analogy of computer technology  being applied to word processing as justification for his argument.

I must respectfully disagree.

I would draw a different analogy.  The advent of spreadsheets in no way diminished the need for accountants.  Certainly financial data is more available then ever before.  Companies like Bloomberg have made a whole business out of trading on the professional analytics created and managed by accountants.  There are dozens of different accounting packages like QuickBooks on the market today, and yet the accounting profession is alive and well.  There are accountants that specialize in venture capital structures, others that specialize in capital planning for real estate investment trusts.  If there is a significant business market in the world, there is a branch of accountants that has evolved an expertise to apply the principles of financial analysis and the Generally Accepted Accounting Principals to this area of business.

A similar pattern can be observed in the application of specialized geospatial education and training to a variety of problems from hydrology to transportation to the distribution of electric power.  In many different areas, GIS professionals apply high-order geospatial concepts of spatial reference, topology, and geostatistical analysis to support businesses, governments, and non-profits.  Proponents of the certification of geospatial professionals cite the requirement for education and training in these concepts along with practical experience in the use of geospatial technology as they make their case for establishing a true profession in this field.

Some of the comments on Don's blog suggested that because geospatial analysis is used in widely diverse fields that this somehow diminishes GIS as a particular area of study.  I would argue that just the opposite is true.  It is specifically because geospatial concepts, analysis, and technology can be effectively used to support a very wide variety of the world's problems that makes it such a compelling area of study in its own right.  Certainly no one has suggested that the value of an MBA is somehow diminished because people who possess an MBA pursue a wide variety of interests.

From where I sit, the future for GIS professionals has never been brighter.  As geospatial data becomes more available and the systems that can leverage that data become more pervasive, there will be a growing demand for trained professionals who understand the power of geospatial analysis and can bring that power to bear to help solve some of the world's most critical problems.  If you truly want to make a difference in the world, and you would like to have a wide variety of choices of how and where to invest your energy then a Masters in GIS is a great place to start.

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Reader Comments (3)

Thank you, Stu, for adding your perspective to the ongoing debate. However, I would like to point out a few things I think some of the debaters are overlooking.
Firstly, the title of my blog post was "GIS is Dead, Long Live GIS". It seems that most are focusing more on the "GIS is Dead" half of the title, and neglecting the "Long Live GIS" portion. What I was trying to say with the title was - there is a fundamental change occurring in the field of GIS. The old ways of working with GIS are in decline (The King is Dead). The new ways of working with GIS are growing by leaps and bounds (Long Live the King!).
Secondly, to use the analogy presented in your post - I agree, spreadsheets did not diminish the need for accountants. Spreadsheets are a tool, used by the accountant in their daily work. Similarly, what I am saying is GIS is now a tool, used by many professionals in their daily work. If I recall, there was a time when it DID require a specialist to operate a computer driven spreadsheet, (and even more so, a relational database). However, with the maturation of those tools, they are now available to, and used by anyone who wants to take a few hours to learn how the software works. I believe GIS is nearing a similar point of maturity.
Thirdly, I agree that the complexities of GIS will probably keep some of its uses from becoming as easy to use as a spreadsheet, or a word processor. Those complexities are what will keep us all in business. However, some uses have already reached the point of ubiquity enjoyed by the word processor. How long ago was it that it took a GIS professional a few hours to set up a connected digital road network, and calculate how long it would take to drive from point a to point b using the shortest and/or fastest route possible? How many people can do that today by punching a couple of buttons on their dashboard GPS?
Lastly, there will probably always be a need for GIS professionals concentrating in particular fields. However, I believe the days where a GIS professional can do it all ARE over. GIS professionals now must specialize in a particular area. That specialty might be planning, transportation, software development, web development, or digital cartography. The GIS pro might concentrate on serving data throughout an organization, or over the internet, or set up systems to do that for other organizations. They might teach, write books, speak, or blog about GIS. Ten years ago, there were some GIS businesses that could (or at least thought they could) do all of these things. Today, I don't think there are any that would even try.

November 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDon Meltz

Don, thanks much for the comment. Certainly GIS technology IS getting much more powerful and easier to use. I would also agree that we are seeing a lot of specialization in the field of GIS, both from a subject matter perspective and from a technology perspective. It is now possible, for example, to make a living specializing in Flex development for GIS web mapping applications for example.

As to whether a firm can prosper and grow offering primarily geospatial technology expertise to a wide variety of clients, I would point you to a couple of prominent news stories in the past few months. First, CH2M Hill spun off its geospatial technology group to a venture capital group a couple of months ago. The new firm, Critigen, has as its primary value proposition the delivery of geospatial technology expertise to its very long list of clients. Secondly Northrup Grumman took a similar strategy a few weeks back when it spun off its TASC division. These two companies are interesting because they represent large companies pursuing a growth strategy based specifically on delivering geospatial technology expertise. They are by no means unique, however. There are relatively independent divisions within most of the large systems integrators including SAIC, AECOM, TetraTech, and others that pursue a profit-center business model of offering geospatial technology expertise to a wide variety of internal and external customers. All things taken together, I see a very positive future for professionals in the geospatial industry and I think that there is room in that future for both embedded and independent business models. As you say... Long Live GIS!

November 16, 2009 | Unregistered Commentersturich

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