Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Accounting for GIS

 I've been thinking a lot lately about what is missing from the Geoweb. As I am 41, I naturally look back to the early days of mass computing for helpful comparisons. Thinking about the 80s and 90s, I realized just recently what I was looking for. I was looking for everyone.

Stay with me here.

Before the advent of mass computing, accountants were a specialized profession. In order to balance your books, generally you would have a bookkeeper or accountant who went through reams of paper, and did what most people thought was an arcane specialized job. Today, there are still accountants, they still do an arcane specialized job. The difference is that there is a standard type of application, the spreadsheet, that opened up a tool of their job to pretty much anyone.

So a portion of their job, playing with numbers, became open to millions of users. Spreadsheets, and the analysis of data, have become an essential tool for business. People can publish and analyze data in ways they were never able to do before, and have come up with many unique ways to use spreadsheets that accountants never would have. Arguably, Microsoft Excel is the most used database in the world, and the vast majority of users are not accountants.

That's what I want to see happen with GIS. I want to see applications where people are able to manipulate and visualize Geo data even without programming experience or GIS training. I think we've come a short ways toward that. Applications like Google Earth and Google Maps let you visualize data through a standard GUI interface. Maps APIs allow people with some programming skills to put a map on their site.

But nothing makes it easy. People come to me all the time and say "Here's a spreadsheet, how do I put all my stores on the web? Add in driving directions? OK now I want to add in other things..." Data driven apps are still harder to do. I think Fusion Tables is getting there, but needs more. It needs basic spatial queries (point in polygon for instance). And it needs the ability to upload other GIS data formats, not just KML.

But wait, I hear some GIS Pros cry, you'll take jobs from us! If people can visualize their own data, why would they need us? And besides, we do a much better job than they do.

It's true, good GIS pros will produce better analysis than the average person on their own. But I doubt that GIS Pros will lose jobs. What happened with spreadsheets was that whole new uses for data were developed. People created spreadsheets to track and chart all sorts of things. Sure, probably a few accountants lost jobs, but there are still almost 1.3 million accountants and auditors in the US, with their prospects growing. I think putting the ability to visualize geographic data into the hands of everyday users will increase the demand for specialized knowledge, increase the general awareness of geographic data opportunities, and only be good for the profession.

3 comments:

Joe Francica said...

Mano, I wrote about this same phenomenon back for GIS World in the early 90's. GIS will/has already become an embedded technology. The spreadsheet analogy is apt. But you need to carry it further. What is Quicken or QuickBooks? It's nothing more than a spreadsheet married to a basic database. Except, the user could care less what is underneath the covers. It just works. This was the premise for many, including myself, to write in 1994 that GIS would disappear. Has it? Not really; it's just become more pervasive and more specialized. Google Earth is the manifestation of embedded GIS into a visualization platform. And the user could care less what's underneath the covers. It's only taken us 15 more years to get to where we thought it would be back in the mid-90's.

Rich Treves said...

Yup, spot on. I often refer to 'GIS George', you used to need him to visualise your data on a map but in lots of cases, now you don't. And George isn't going to be out of a job because the increase in users will ask for more things of him, and he knows about GIS analysis which GMaps and GEarth and other geoweb tools don't really handle.

Mano Marks said...

@Joe I thought about more specialized apps like Quicken or QuickBooks, and that's a good point. They're still fairly pervasive. The thing I like about the Excel example is that it is a generalized app, and maybe that's what we should aim for, something that can do geographic visualization as well as number crunching. But I like the idea of a specialized app too, maybe that's stage 2.