By Michael Terner, Executive Vice President
With the turn of the New Year I read many of the pieces that both looked backward at the year past and forward to what is coming, and I naturally tried to decide what I would have said. So, after nearly three months of mulling things over in quiet times walking my dog, and also at louder times as our company actively plans for the coming year, I think I actually have an answer:
The most influential thing I heard last year was Paul Ramsey’s typically brilliant talk at the OpenGeo User Meeting that followed the inaugural FOSS4G North America conference in Washington, D.C. His talk posited that our industry may be both misnamed and held back by the term “GIS” (geographic information systems). He argued that “GIS” connotes a particular type of software and doesn’t fully describe what many of us are actually doing, and he proposed an alternative name, Spatial IT (information technology). This new nomenclature strongly resonated with me. Brian Timoney’s blog piece from October 2012 provided an important and articulate “second” to many of these notions. Probably more importantly to me, my colleagues at AppGeo (founded in 1991) seemed to share the “ah-ha” moment of this relatively simple observation.
To me, the core of the argument for a “Spatial IT outlook” is that “GIS has grown up.” The professional-grade software (e.g., from Esri, founded in 1969) is incredibly powerful, mature and feature-rich. Most of the big data automation and digitizing projects have been completed or are underway. The “case for GIS” has been made to most geographically oriented organizations – be they government agencies, utilities, or the established cartographic houses like National Geographic – and “GIS” is in daily action managing and publishing geographic data. Most importantly, the public awareness and expectation for electronic mapping is extremely high whether on the Web or on a smartphone; whether in your house, office, car or city park. The battle for “geo-relevancy” is over.
So while lots of “GIS” is going on, the most interesting and challenging problems are no longer “about GIS.” Rather, the problems many of us find ourselves working on involve integrating geospatial information into complex workflows; or coordinating the efforts of stakeholders, data providers, and data consumers operating at different levels of government; or, publishing an ever wider array of geospatial information to new audiences who use the latest devices and user interfaces; or, extracting business and/or environmental intelligence by exposing and mining the spatial relationships, both hidden and embedded, within corporate databases, web statistics and sensor networks. Indeed, we are tackling many of the same challenges that the rest of the information technology and software development industries currently face. We just have a particular vantage on the “spatial” dimension, and the term “Spatial IT” captures these concepts perfectly.
The second-most influential observation that helped inform my personal view heading deeper into the New Year is that our geospatial marketplace continues to be disrupted in several dimensions. The first is the shift away from installed software to new Software as a Service (SaaS) and other cloud-based models. Once again, this form of disruption parallels change in the overall IT industry. No one has it all figured out and both our customers and suppliers seem unclear on how all this will play out, but all agree there are new opportunities and challenges. The second disruptive dimension is that the market has delivered a variety of new software offerings that pose new challenges to an industry that has had a sole dominant player for a long time. Whether exploring the increasingly stable and supported geospatial Open Source options (both desktop and server), or leveraging Google’s (founded in 1998) immense cloud as they open up enterprise offerings, people are exercising options beyond simply buying the latest and greatest from #1.
When I look ahead, I cannot help but conclude that it is a fantastic time for our Spatial IT industry. Never have there been so many choices, and the learning and experimentation is invigorating. It is always good to get out of a rut and see things from a fresh perspective. Indeed, spatial technologies are powerful and ready to be applied in new ways to different problems.
A company like AppGeo can be a business partner with the industry leader while also applying Open Source technologies in innovative ways. We can architect and construct the hybrid systems that Esri foresees to literally give our customers the “best of both worlds.” We can both deliver and consume Web services while leveraging the largest, fastest and most stable commercial clouds to keep costs down. AppGeo’s world in 2013 is anything but the “same old, same old.”
And most importantly, in this new, disrupted world, I believe there is a secure place for a company like ours to do what we have done for more than 21 years: apply geospatial and information technologies to solve the wide (and always getting wider) variety of fascinating problems our customers and partners face.