This column is sponsored by ESRI.
The geospatial platform has always balanced its three core technologies — spatial databases, spatial analysis and visualization. It’s the integration of these three technologies that make GIS unique, and also make it an excellent tool for great insight into asset and land use issues. The evolution of the technology over the years has always been reactive to the many scientific and technological developments of the day, moving forward in parallel facets and spurred by pressing application areas where dollars have flowed most freely.
The geospatial platform has been around since the 1960s. In the early years, the platform was largely consumed with discovering the means to replicate the graphic representations on a map within a computer system. The pressing problems revolved around large-scale land classification exercises. The minimal computing power required a great deal of data storage gymnastics in order to store values and retrieve them to make meaningful analysis.
This graphical focus evolved to a database storage and analysis phase, where the means to store data of many types spurred a thirst for more and more data. Paper maps were digitized in mass, and the growth of data providers helped ease one of the major barriers to GIS adoption. Spatial analysis came about with inputs from a great number of domain practitioners and GI Science expertise. The platform spread with solutions for specific users sometimes taking precedent over core technology advancement.
Visualization capabilities have evolved somewhat slower than the other core technologies. The means to represent and present map data in 2D form has been fine tuned. Increasingly, there’s a push for greater realism and dimensionality that is spurring data collection innovations. The push for greater map realism is creeping forward at a pace that’s behind other virtual reality representation tools (games, design tools and entertainment), with great innovations in store.
Hitting the Web
With the advent of the Web, the means to communicate map data to the masses was revealed. Platform developers have strived to provide professionals with tools to distribute their data online, as well as standing up large-scale portals for data and service delivery. With web mapping platforms, spatial data found the ultimate medium that can integrate all other knowledge with spatial reference points.
The Web has provided the means for custom development of applications, solutions and services. Development tools allow for the creative combination of data from various sources to provide insight tailored to specific audiences. The platform is far harder to define with open data exchange, interchangeable components and various analysis engines that can be mixed and matched to provide a desired outcome.
On a parallel track, the realization that the lucrative local search market needs rich location experiences has spurred huge investments. Google and Microsoft are fiercely battling it out in the online search space with innovations in user experience and web platforms as well as massive data investments that will enhance the experience of all geospatial users.
Geospatial expertise is no longer a pre-requisite to use and manipulate digital maps. It’s now possible to create fairly sophisticated map views online, to save and to share among friends and interested parties. As consumer-generated content takes hold, professional content will become even more important.
Expert Tools Add Realism, Accuracy and Analysis
Content delivery experts will continue to grow, and may make it tough for a GIS company to compete in the mainstream online map delivery space. But, the innovation that’s necessary for the geospatial platform is beyond the standard tools and interface advancements that are happening on the consumer-oriented Web mapping front. It’s the extension of the core data creation, analysis and professional presentation features that will be sustainable in the long term.
Large detailed city models are becoming more common. Inputs to this sophisticated model will be all manner of geospatial information, but at a scale that closely models the accuracy, physics and temporal components of reality. With greater accuracy and more intelligence within the models, the ability to analyze in three dimensions will bring the design and construction community closer to the geospatial fold.
Data creation is also becoming more automated, and data ingestion within systems will become much quicker, even approaching real time. With greater input into systems, the collaborative power of the technology will be explored and expanded. The combination of many different perspectives and domain expertise will deliver a much more vetted and expert reality that will be tough to duplicate in an entirely open interface. The standing up of expert realities, designed for infrastructure and engineering-grade analysis, will create parallel worlds for serious work.
Sustainability Spurs Innovation
There’s a growing need for better understanding of Earth Systems that factor in human inputs. Sustainability issues present a myriad of possible causes and effects that need to be methodically analyzed. Growing populations and expanding land use make it difficult to understand the nexus between the natural and manmade world. We have to be able to track characteristics through both time and space in order to get a handle on global transformations.
If we’re going to find expedient solutions to sustainability issues, GIS will need to evolve to incorporate multiple and in-depth Earth system process models and address dynamic processes across large space and long time. We need to develop sophisticated means to model, simulate and analyze dynamic processes. Tools need to be tailored to problems in a way that doesn’t require great domain expertise. These models need to provide outputs that are vetted with either machine knowledge or rule-based review so that decisions based on models are well-reasoned.
Finally, we need to link geospatial tools, models and analysis to the planning, funding and project process, so that GIS lives up to its integrative and collaborative potential.
Read what Jeff Thurston has to say on this topic here.
- Map Analysis by Joe Berry, Topic 27: GIS Evolution and Future Trends
- The Future of Spatial Data and Society: Summary of a Workshop (1997) National Academies Press
- The GIS History Project