It’s not about you, it’s about we

GIS doyenne Adena Schutzberg has another stimulating editorial out in Directions magazine. Today, she tries to reconcile the boundless enthusiasm us mapping civilians have for mashups and Google Earth with an apparent sense in the GIS community that this isn’t anything special, so why the hype?

I do not mean to be insulting, but this is the “lowest level” of geographic analysis; it’s basic mapping.

She explains where this enthusiasm by non GIS pros might come from:

I’m more and more convinced that what we take for granted as basic geocoding/mapping is “indistinguishable from magic” for many. That, in turn, draws many people to it like bees to flowers. Hence, the hype and the widespread need to touch and use and “ogle” each new application.

I think she misses the point in this particular case, however. The most important aspect of the mass mapping “revolution” of the past 6 months has not been the trickling down of wonderful GIS technologies to the grateful masses. Rather, what’s genuinely new is that the collaborative, social model that defines Web 2.0 has finally been applied to mapmaking. That’s truly never happened before, and it leads to all kinds of wonderful cumulative results that could not previously have been created by a comparatively small band of GIS professionals.

It’s not the technology, fundamentally, but the interaction that is causing this hype. It’s about mass mapping as a means to a social end.

Segue this article in USA Today, which maintains precisely this point when it comes to Google Earth.

5 thoughts on “It’s not about you, it’s about we”

  1. While individual programmers’ expansions on the format, Google’s forward-thinking approach and the concept of a geographic, open-source Web 2.0 are all wonderful, welcome and compelling, the great leap forward is clearly not in the technology or its applications; it’s in the fact that 99% of people currently using GIS software (if that’s what you consider Earth and Worldwind) have never had access to this kind of software before, let alone in conjunction with terabytes of streaming global data. It’s not that it seems like magic – certainly it’s not that visually impressive in light of recent advances in home video game systems. It’s that this is a form of information that was out there, but never before readily available, that speaks to people on a personal level. Never has a person opened Google Earth who hasn’t typed in their home address. There’s nothing, nothing in the world, that you could say “every single person on earth wants to see that.” Nothing except a picture of their house from outer space. _Everyone_ would like to see that.

    The GIS community right now is experiencing something like what balloon operators must have felt at the advent of the aeroplane: “It flies too, but it’s primitive. Why are people so obsessed with it?” Ten years from now, Google will probably provide the basic platform on which 99% of military/industrial GIS systems operate, and they’ll be tied into a commercial and geographic web revolutionary relative to what we have now.

    To take it further, I think an alteration of perspective along informational lines, i.e. a map “projection” based on data, is the next logical step from a design perspective. Had I the know-how to code something like this (I’m more a designer than a programmer) I’d be interested in ways to alter the polygonal geography or geometry to represent the data, rather than just altering the surface images or links the way many are doing now. Because ultimately, seamless immersion and transfer between geographic location and informational (“website”) local content will be the goal.

    I’m waiting for a map with terrain with altitudes based on internet traffic, with cities based on an organization of information, not the arbitrary streets and buildings of the old world.

  2. Very good rebuttal/amplification to Adena’s comments. I’ve been associated with Adena professionally for some years now and I’d have to say she is one of the more open-minded of the “GIS Professional” clique.

    The observation balloon analogy is a good one. The GIS industry today is frustrating to say the least. I have been on the fringes as a consumer/specifier/concept designer, pumping several million dollars of the government’s money into a number of GIS projects when I was still an employed person.

    Seldom have I found an emerging technology where the practitioners have more of a closed outlook towards innovation. Just a few years ago I attempt to get a project very similar to Google earth *(but on a much smaller scale) designed, specified and funded. The push back from the professional community was astounding. Even though several firms could have probably earned millions for designing and implementing what Google Earth now gives away.

    I market a commercial product that provides business vehicle tracking data using Microsoft MapPoint. As an exercise, the company engineers plotted vehicle trip data on Google Earth. results looked outstanding. When asked if they could make this a feature for clients the response was, “Oh heavens no, Google Earth isn’t really professional”. In other words, they couldn’t figure out how to make money off it.

    A number of GIS professionals had better wake up and smell the coffee … the field of mapping integrated with data is set to spring wide open and the buggy whip manufacturers may be left in the dust (this means you, Mr. Dangermond ;-)

  3. Simple differences- free access to an amazing dataset in a fast and simple application. No one has had the guts or $ to make this much data available this cheaply, people’s jaws are dropping because this data has been hidden from them. No one has made a GIS that works this fast on ordinary hardware, the performance is shockingly fast. No one has made one that has all of this and can be used with zero training, can easily integrate and share data. Sure, there’s nothing new under the sun, but GE does it all, better (data and usability), faster, and cheaper- which has put it past the tipping point to broad acceptance.

  4. Dave –

    how interesting or useful do you think it would be for a logistics platform if, in plotting vehicle locations, map distances were “warped” visually based on traffic wait times?


  5. Josh,

    In the right circumstances I think it could be extremely valuable. I don’t have a good ‘picture’ in my head as to how one would actually implement this, but I understand the principle and thought behind it. Immediate potential consumers .. taxi companies, emergency services dispatching, on-demand package pickup/delivery services, snow removal command centers … the list goes on. Are you involved in this type of development?

    One potential that has hardly even created a ripple yet … as more and more businesses and individuals equip with GPS tracking devices, there develops a huge source of raw speed/location data out there that could drive such a distance ‘warping’ service. The challenge would be getting people to share anonymously … but the potential is there.

    Best regards


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