Has GIS Lost its Core Values?

What is missing today is a simpler GIS that is stripped back with just a simple user interface and the basic tools.

Mapping software, commonly known as GIS (Geographic Information System), isn’t new. Those knowing their map analysis history will proudly discuss how Roger Thomlinson in the early 1960s created a computerized system in which he could extract information by overlaying geographic data. The very same premise that was created almost 60 years ago is now considered the Fourth Industrial Revolution and has saved millions of lives when you consider how it has been used to monitor COVID-19 outbreak and its spread throughout the world.

GIS can be a powerful tool. When you take those simple overlay and distance tools, then integrate statistical analysis, there is the potential to use historic data to model potential future events through linear regression or even use cost weighting to find the most cost-effective route to lay a new cable. Since the start of the millennium, companies like ArcGIS (Esri) and Pitney Bowes (MapInfo) have been at the forefront of providing these mapping tools, and in the last decade, software like QGIS, SuperGIS, CADCorp, Microstation and Global Mapper have come to the market with more specialized and free tools.

Every industry uses its mapping software differently. For example, working in the offshore industry would need the ability to use Electronic Navigation Chart (ENC) data; a government user may want to use SPARQL or integrate demographic spreadsheets; and a surveyor might want to use point clouds and proprietary survey formats.

Esri was exceptionally good at incorporating industry relevant add-ons into its software. QGIS lets users build and share tools as plugins. A user who has worked across many specialized industries would know that the ability to access specialized tools was invaluable in guaranteeing quality and consistency across the industry.

GIS has lost its way; it has become an awesome tool like the current mobile phones. It was amazing that you could roam wirelessly and make calls, but now you have a minicomputer everywhere you go. Some argue that it is no longer a phone, and so they named it a ‘smartphone’. Maybe we are in the era of the ‘smart GIS’

Confusing software

With having to meet the demands of so many user types, what we have now are some very confusing software. The interfaces have to help each of the user types to get their information quickly whilst keeping some of the basic tools easily at hand. The software also needs to have a route to providing the advanced tools, commonly called “geoprocessing tools”, which is normally done through an extra panel or interface (see image 1 & 2).

There was a stage a few years ago when GIS interfaces at my place of work had to be restricted for new users, so that the GIS would open with only simple zoom, select and attribute table tools. As the new users learned the software, they were able to add the more advanced interfaces themselves. Though, more often than not, the GIS team wouldn’t need any of the advanced tools.

Herein lies the issue that is identified in the title, from an average user point of view, whereby a GIS analyst or technician would be employed to support a business, there would be little need for complex 3D analysis tools or GeoAI. In fact, many companies might not want to take the risk of using the tools without employing a specialist or paying for a team to undergo training, which is a large financial burden.

Image 1: You can see some of the 33 toolboxes which are the overarching groups of individual tools here on the left of this screenshot from ArcGIS Pro

Added risk

This also identifies another risk: having unqualified or new users creating or inferring answers which they may not wholly understand. The mathematical models behind these geoprocessing tools are sound and provide consistent results, though the inputs the user provides could be easily entered incorrectly. Interpolation is one such example. Having worked in the offshore industry, bathymetry can come in several forms, some is captured in a regular grid and some is captured where it can be. When working with a regular grid of points, Inverse Distance Weighting (IDW) interpolation is best, for irregular points, Kriging. It was quite common to see and receive incorrectly interpolated data. Another common issue was working with 3D data. The tools for conversion and manipulation are very simple in the modern GIS system, but without consideration for vertical coordinate systems or normal directions, things can get very messy.

Image 2: Screenshot of QGIS, on the right, you can see the list of processing toolboxes which are containers for groups of tools.

Is what we currently call ‘GIS’ a correct term anymore?

In the past five years, there have been some amazing advances. Being able to edit an accurately scaled building with internal objects which can be spatially analyzed is something which is immensely powerful, but isn’t this the realm of Geo-BIM? Looking at the ability to export data to Unreal Engine, isn’t this the realm of 3D modeling? How about the ability to import and analyze stereo-imagery, then georeferenced and model from it, is this not a surveyor’s realm?

Some might argue that by giving the ability to work with BIM, CAD, survey, 3D modeling and even visualization tools in a GIS platform is forcing the GIS worker to become a jack of all trades (and master of none), with which comes an air of expectation too. Pity the poor university GIS graduates who gets their first job and are thrown into a world of supporting these disparate tools, not quite the simple constraint mapping they signed up for.

Should these tools be there? Yes 100%; in fact, bring more! The truth is that sometimes these tools are vital to achieve the goal. If a surveyor sends over some LiDAR that a client wants to use alongside their plans and the LiDAR needs colouring with the aerial imagery to create a 3D geographic environment which gives the ability to take (rough) coordinates and also measure, a GIS is a great platform to do it. We have all been there, haven’t we?

In my opinion, we need to rethink GIS. I even question whether some of the more advance GIS are really a GIS at all anymore? But should they become individual tools in their own right? No, I don’t think that should happen either, as everything is related to each other. So, you may get a 2D data which you then need to 3D model (if you have the expertise) and you would need to call on all those disparate tools in a single location to meet your goal.

What is missing, in my opinion, is a simpler GIS that is stripped back with just a simple user interface and the basic tools to zoom in, zoom out, do a little constraints analysis, and maybe import/export some data. As an expert, I love having all this functionality at hand, but often, I just want to open up a map quick, do a couple of quick edits and get out again. I am sure that one day soon, Esri, MapInfo, CADCorp, Bently and the other corporates will realize that the best way to get the GIS users on board is to have a simple, basic GIS as a free or low cost offering which can interact and share data with their more expensive and all-encompassing smart GIS systems.

From this point of view, GIS has lost its way, it has become an awesome tool, like the current mobile phones. It was amazing that you could roam wirelessly and make calls, but now you have a minicomputer everywhere you go. Some argue that it is no longer a phone and they named it a ‘smartphone’…maybe we are in the era of the ‘smart GIS’.

From a hands-on perspective, GIS is becoming far too complex, or rather the user interface (UI) is becoming too confusing.

Author Bio

Nicholas is a Chartered Geographer specializing in GIS, with decades of experience across many different industries, including offshore, renewables, nuclear, environmental, engineering and even property to name a few. Working with 3D GIS, AR, VR and even some GEOBIM across GIS, CAD and gaming engines to create innovative solutions to real world problems, Nicholas was one of the founders of #GISChat. He has won awards for cartography and thrives on helping others to learn and further their GIS capability.

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