GIS isn’t dead

29 January 2018

GIS alive well

Blog written by Natalie Scott, Principal Consultant at Interpret Geospatial Solutions

Location matters. Spatial information plays a core role in many business processes and will only become more important in 2018. Managers and executives recognise that geographic data is a critical part of their business.

This is acknowledged in a recent flurry of blogs and articles reflecting the way locational data, and GIS, will change the way we do business. Unfortunately, it has also brought forth opinion pieces proclaiming that the boom in location intelligence means the end of GIS.

But don’t worry - while it’s no secret that the GIS industry is changing (at a rapid pace), reports of the demise of traditional GIS are fundamentally misplaced.

GIS is merely a set of technologies, some old and some new. ‘Location intelligence’ is simply a way of thinking in which one acknowledges that place is an important component of information. Perhaps some of the confusion comes from the misconception that GIS, in a traditional sense, is purely ‘making maps’ to display static or historic data. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Early GIS was static by necessity, but it still involved a high level of analytics based on location. Examples such as John Snow’s famous Cholera map, Charles Picquet's epidemiological heatmap of Paris, and manual ‘sieve mapping’ using layered transparencies, show that location analytics are no recent invention.

The ongoing development of computer-based GIS software has made analysis much easier. By building tools, processes, models and scripts, we can undertake more complex analyses with ease. However it’s important to realise that these analysis components have always been as much a fundamental part of GIS applications as making maps.

It’s great to see that boundaries are being pushed by GIS software platforms across the board. This demonstrates an ongoing expansion of the power of GIS, rather than a failure of the system.  As the world around us evolves, so too do our systems for collecting and processing data. We are getting better at bringing all of our systems together, which means we have a wider range of information available to feed into our GIS.

The role of maps has always been to share information in a clear and unambiguous way. As interest and knowledge in location-based data has become more widespread, it’s been awesome to see GIS take on this role. Geographic data can play a central role in the day to day jobs of (for example) specialist GIS analysis, developers who have nothing to do with maps, and end-users who rely on the data, but don’t want to have to look under the hood. By making geographic information accessible, everyone benefits.

One of the best things about GIS systems is their flexibility. Data is collected in a variety of formats and can readily be transformed to meet the requirements of the project at hand. This also means that it’s easy to get data to move between systems, because ultimately, data is just data.

This can be moving data from the GIS into a third-party application, or it can be sourcing data from multiple streams to use in your application. The ongoing expansion of open data programs is fantastic and helps provide organisations with the information they need to make important decisions.

It’s somewhat facetious to label GIS software as a ‘legacy system’. They are not some outdated limited pieces of code; rather they are enterprise-level solutions which can be used to solve complex problems.

We all need to embrace the move to having location as an important piece of information, but we also need to understand that the particular flavour of GIS software in use is not the main issue - instead we need to ensure that we optimise the way we use GIS and spatial data to solve real-world problems.

TL;DR: GIS is still very much alive.  'Location intelligence’ is just a different way of spelling Spatial Analysis, and it has been a part of GIS since GIS was being done on paper. The software doesn't much matter, it's what you do with it that counts.