Find Your Spirit of Innovation on GIS Day

Why do we celebrate GIS Day?  One reason is to show pride in our profession and to promote it to others, which are both worthwhile endeavors. But as a term, GIS is not modern, and is somewhat limited in scope. It was coined by Roger Tomlinson in 1968, which was the same year that the “Harvard Lab for Computer Graphics” added “and Spatial Analysis” to its name.   The computer graphics industry spawned several technology leaders in early GIS, most notably, Intergraph (founded in 1969), who became the market leader in the 1970s and 80s. During the 1990s, the mantle of market leader shifted to Esri (also founded in 1969) – times change, as do market leaders.

The term GIS was adopted by vendors and academics alike during these early decades of the industry.  It was applied to map data and technology that needed a label to differentiate it from other types of data and technology, including computer graphics.  It became a banner under which a fledgling profession could rally and grow, along with the market.  An entire industry grew-up and matured under this label, and the biggest “GIS rally” for many years has been the ESRI User Conference, at which as many as 15,000 people now gather. Based on its success in what became a global market, the almost 50 year-old Esri is often considered synonymous with GIS, as other players came and went on a playing field that the market leader was able to define for everyone — until now.  Today, “GIS” is a label that does not adequately describe what many of us who have grown-up in this industry actually do, nor the data and technology that we often use to solve problems for today’s customers, which now includes many robust open source components as well as proprietary products.  Other blog posts have mentioned Geospatial/IT as an alternative term that is more modern in its genesis than GIS, which emerged when “MIS” was a common term – but how often is MIS used these days to describe information dashboards and analytical tools for the C-Suite and the rest of the enterprise?

It occurs to me that geo-innovation is what we do at AppGeo.  I’m not proposing it as a label for the industry.  In fact, I don’t want us to be stereotyped under a label that industry watchers might latch onto, as they did to GIS back in the day.  We pull ideas, data, and technology from many sources that would not fall under the traditional GIS label, but which help achieve the outcomes that our customers seek, including enterprise location strategies.  From our experience, it would be more appropriate to consider GIS as part of a bigger set of data and technology, such as “Open Data,” which is core to transparency in government, an informed citizenry, and the smart cities movement.  In many ways, GIS data was the original Open Data, even if now it is only a subset.  And while for many years we considered GIS to be special and not the same as general-purpose data and technology, on many levels it is the same.  Part of the power and attraction of geo-innovation for AppGeo is applying general-purpose programming languages, development frameworks, query languages, and databases — together with mathematics, cartography, geography, data science, design, and other disciplines — to solve geographic location problems and communicate solutions to both private and public sector clients, answering questions such as:

  • Where is my work force deployed?
  • Where are the people I need to serve?
  • Where should I locate my service centers?
  • Where are my equipment assets and resources?
  • Where are the highest concentrations of trouble calls?

And these are just a few examples of the types of questions we get asked to answer – and they all are typically followed with the request to “show me on a map.” Applying our knowledge of how to analyze and solve problems that have a geospatial location element is more important than the products we choose to use, or the labels that industry watchers or market leaders adopt as a differentiator.  And our preferred products and tools will always be changing, sometimes slowly, and sometimes rapidly in disruptive ways.  You need user empathy and a continuously open and fresh outlook to see the possibilities of new technologies; a spirit for exploration; and an affinity for healthy competition; and yes, an appetite for disruption in the market place. These things not only spawn geo-innovation, but they require it – and they characterize the modern professionals in our company, who I am lucky to have as colleagues.  Such are my musings on GIS Day, and every day that I am part of this geo-renaissance!

– Rich Grady, President, Applied Geographics, Inc.

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