The GIS Fork in the Road

New York City GISMO (Geospatial Information Systems and Mapping Organization) hosted the GIS Startup and Open Data Forum meeting at the New York Public Library on November 18th.   The agenda included a series of five-minute lightning talks featuring nine existing and emerging startups including LavaMap, Local Data, Placemeter, Sourcemap, CartoDB, Boundless, Ontodia, Interface Foundry, and Liquid Galaxy.  The second half of the meeting consisted of similar five-minute presentations by (largely) government data providers including Westchester County GIS, Colin Reilly, NYC Dept. of Information Technology and Telecommunications,  Matt Knutzen, New York Public Library Map Division, Chris Barnett, OpenGeoPortal, and Andrew Nicklin, Director,  Open New York.

It was a fast paced set of presentations which highlighted the continued growth in the use of geographic data in products and services outside the traditional NYS GIS community.    So much so that a couple of the startup speakers openly admitted they knew little of GIS or had any formal training in the geosciences prior to getting involved with their startup.  Which speaks volumes to how much the landscape has changed.  A good two hours of content further blurring where old school GIS ends and the new generation of location based services (LBS) begins.  Most likely increasingly new territory for many of those in attendance who were trained and educated in the classic GIS sciences or those currently in public service supporting and using conventional government GIS systems.  And it certainly provided time for a little personal self-reflection having been in the government GIS circle for 25+ years.  Some of the new startup apps presented certainly have relevance to our geospatial programs aligned with Westchester County GIS, while others are clearly designed and intended for mobile consumers and the business sector.

The data provider presentations offered current information on the accessibility of publically available GIS datasets (including historical NYC map series), map services, and metadata catalogs covering the metropolitan New York City.  Andrew Nicklin included comments on the anticipated direction of the Open New York portal as it relates to GIS and the geospatial industries.  The meeting closed out with the data provider presenters taking questions from the audience.

Whether by coincidence or not, the meeting was of a timely theme given the recent amount of discussion on various web and blog posts suggesting that the GIS profession is “splitting”. blog contributor Matt Sheehan started much of the dialog in his last two blog posts in which other industry writers have offered similar viewpoints and opinions.  I’ve offered similar antidotal evidence in earlier eSpatiallyNewYork blog posts, though Mr. Sheehan’s September 26th post resonates loud and clear:  “People from outside the industry are increasingly becoming involved. Lacking any GIS baggage, they are providing a new perspective. Traditional GIS is moving slowly.” 

Without belaboring the point, the tradition GIS community needs to continue to take notice.  The emerging geospatial startup sector is for real and will continue to be actively supported and coveted by community leaders, politicians, elected officials, and government administrators in ways the traditional GIS community has struggled to be associated with:  jobs, economic and business development, mobility and cutting edge technologies, and modernizing, if not commercializing, government systems and applications – including government funded GIS and mapping programs.  Granted the business models are completely different, but there is no doubt that many existing government GIS programs could use a remodeling job and benefit from several of the products and services highlighted as part of this GISMO meeting.

While sitting and listening to the startup presentations, I thought of the “split” perspective others have recently debated and offered, though preferring to put it in context of a quote from my most favorite New York spokesman Yogi Berra, “If you come to a fork in the road, take it”.  With the significant transformational changes in front of us, it’s probably in the best interests of the traditional GIS community to take the fork in the road Yogi is referring to.  Indeed, perhaps an unknown or uncomfortable direction, but at least see where it goes.  Sampling and testing new products from new vendors.  Maybe a chance (or time) to replace an outdated GIS utility or application. Find a more cost effective solution. Reinvent the age old government work flow.  Or simply to look at the existing GIS business processes in a different context.

Traditional GIS programs and applications will always be needed in both industry and government, though increasingly over time at a decreasing rate.  My guess, at least in the government GIS space, the GIS road width is getting smaller and smaller.  And with it, less and less options to cost effectively change directions.


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