By Rich Grady, President
Is our common GIS heritage a competitive advantage for achieving success as a profession, or are its idiosyncrasies constraining our fitness for adaptation? Both, I think, and I’d like to share some thoughts on the competing criteria for progress if we are to successfully evolve, and the conscious choices we can make to adapt.
GIS Industry Outlook – Ubiquity and Transformation
First, let’s take a quick look at what some well known GIS pundits had to say about the GIS industry outlook in 2018:
- “The GIS industry is heading toward ubiquity, if it hasn’t already reached it.” Susan Smith, Editor of GISCafe
- “Those who think that old school GIS with traditional sources will keep them competitive will begin dying.” Chris Tucker, Chairman of the American Geographical Society, Founder of MapStory
- “We need to envision the future and participate in creating a geoscience-based foundation for our future. I call it societal GIS.” Jack Dangermond, Esri Founder and President (Esri UC Plenary)
These views are varied and somewhat indicative of the competing criteria for progress, and hence, the riddle: What is ubiquitous and yet endangered unless it adapts and transforms? That would be the GIS profession!
GIS Helps Us Work in the Spaces Between Disciplines
We are a diverse amalgamation of different disciplines that have adopted and adapted similar tools and methods in ways that are often unorthodox, collaborative, and antidisciplinary — this is a distinguishing characteristic. While the case could be made that our profession is interdisciplinary by nature, it is perhaps more likely that we studied one discipline in depth, but found it lacking in solutions to understand and visualize certain types of problems. Therefore, regardless of our particular native discipline, we began to use a common toolset — i.e. GIS software — to work the space between the disciplines. When it comes to working the space between the disciplines, two thinkers come to mind from different eras who operated this way. Reading the works of one influenced my thinking early in my career, and the other is a more recent thought-provoker. I’m speaking of Marshall McLuhan who coined the term “global village” in the 1960s and foresaw the coming of the World Wide Web, and Joi Ito who is an advocate for “antidisciplinary” approaches to design and science at the MIT Media Lab.
Have our GIS Tools Limited Us?
When commenting on his friend’s thinking about how life imitates art, John Culkin (a Jesuit priest, and friend of Marshall McLuhan) popularized a famous line in an article about McLuhan in the Saturday Review magazine, often attributed to McLuhan himself — i.e., “We shape our tools and thereafter they shape us.” As we have shaped our GIS tools over the years, for sure they’ve shaped our professional thinking and approaches. Early in my career, when we were still inventing a lot of these tools, it was more about applying causal knowledge to problem-solving than operant conditioning; but today, many identify the GIS profession with one brand of software, and the methods they learned in applying this software. And yet, our survival is best assured by our commitment to problem-solving in innovative and diverse ways, and that is where Joi Ito and his thinking resonates. He wrote the following in a blog piece: “For me, antidisciplinary research is akin to mathematician Stanislaw Ulam’s famous observation that the study of non-linear physics is like the study of ‘non-elephant animals.’ Antidisciplinary is all about the non-elephant animals.” I believe we embody his remarks when we are at our best as GIS professionals.
Non-elephant Animals and Alternative Approaches Needed
While we may study different problem sets and have been schooled in different disciplines, at some level the problems we seek to solve are all mappable on sharable geography — this is a unifying goal. Many disciplines intersect on the same geography, sometimes without even realizing it. For example, when a major road needs to be realigned to enhance safety and reduce traffic accidents and congestion, many disciplines get involved to apply their specialty. In a typical Department of Transportation (DOT), the finance person generates and manages financial data about this project and stores data in an RDBMS such as Oracle. The engineer creates and manages design data for this project in a CAD system such as Bentley MicroStation. The surveyor collects and stores boundary data for the ROW needed for this project in the same CAD system as the engineer, and perhaps uses a Content Management System as well, such as ProjectWise, for property deeds. And the planner wants to harvest the road alignment and the ROW boundaries to factor into an LRS such as Esri Roads & Highways. Each discipline is trained and comfortable with their purpose-built tools and applications. But they all have data that others can leverage and benefit from, if it is shared, to yield increased ROI for the enterprise as a whole. This is where the non-elephants enter the picture, to connect the separate islands of discipline expertise into a holistic view on a map of the common area of operation — the intersection of the disciplines! As GIS professionals, we are the non-elephants, and we have the power to choose to innovate and apply alternative approaches to solving problems, holistically. Doing so will help to ensure our survival.