What is the state of GIS, and where is it going?
Wow, is it even possible to answer that? It seems to be the perpetual question asked at every GIS conference, and embedded into every keynote address given at them. In an attempt to describe the state of GIS, some (many?) are using the terms Paleo and Neo in an attempt to describe past and future tenses of all things geo/gis-related. I’m still not sure these are the correct words to use ( See my blog post titled “My Latest Lesson in GIS”), but they have become a part of the GIS nomenclature, none-the-less.
The impetus to write this post came from a recent discussion on Twitter about how to advise someone just entering the GIS field. It all started innocently enough with a Twitter post by Shawn Bichsel – “I’m meeting a potential #geonerd for lunch to spread the GIS gospel. What’s one piece advice you would give someone entering the GIS field” Shawn did a great job summarizing the responses to his question on his blog – Bixel Is Outside.
My response to that question was “New GISers should view GIS as a tool, not a profession. Need to know enviro, transp, engineer, planning, helath, web, etc…”. Then Justin Houk followed up with a tweet “I like your thinking don. You should do a post on your views of GIS as a profession.” And so, here it is.
GIS is a myth
I apologize for the abundance of Twitter quotes in this post, but there were so many great ideas flying around that day, it’s just easier explain my thought process by using them. Bill Dolans said in one of his most profound tweets ever: “IMO, GIS is a myth. There are info systems/apps that use spatial data and methods but GIS doesn’t exist.” This then led to a few more exchanges comparing GIS use and using computers as “text information systems”. And that’s when the light bulb lit up in my head. We are probably at a similar point in GIS evolution as word processing was 30 or 40 years ago.
GIS and Word Processing
People have been drawing maps and communicating through the written word for thousands of years. There was a time when Word Processing was as much a profession as GIS is today. Read this description of word processing from the Wikipedia article, and see if it looks familiar to you GIS folk:
[In the late 1960’s] IBM defined the term in a broad and vague way as “The combination of people, procedures, and equipment which transforms ideas into printed communications,”
Now look at the definition of GIS from the ESRI website:
A geographic information system (GIS) integrates hardware, software, and data for capturing, managing, analyzing, and displaying all forms of geographically referenced information.
Actually, if I had defined GIS that way on a test in my intro to GIS class, without mentioning that a person was needed to operate it, I would have gotten that one wrong.
Anyway, what I’m trying to say is this:
- There were writers before word processors, and there still are, and always will be, writers.
- There were geospatial analysts before GIS, and there still are, and always will be, geospatial analysts.
- Word Processing is no longer a profession, but word processors are still being used as a tool in many other professions.
- GIS is on it’s way out as a profession, but GIS will continue to be used as a tool in many other professions.
My advice to someone that wants to get into the GIS field is – don’t, because it’s not going to be around much longer. What you should do is – get into a profession you really enjoy, and learn how to apply the various GIS tools to your work.