GIS Thoughts

2005 The message of the year – “It’s the content – stupid”

I knew there was a reason why I worked for a government organisation.. from tomorrow I’m on holiday for two weeks – time to catch up on some reading, DVD’s and to try out building a ruby on rails application !!

Preparing for the holidays got me in a reflective mood looking back over the last 12 months for the GI industry – and what a year! I honestly don’t believe we have seen such rapid developments since the early days of GIS and certainly not with the scale of impact ever.

Clearly many will look back at the development of the mass market web mapping applications as very significant – its hard to believe, but Microsoft Live Local, Google Local, Google Earth and Frappr all appeared this year.

While all these applications have had a major impact in bringing GI to the mainstream and Google Erath in particular has resurrected the globe as a geographical user interface, I believe that the underlying message of all these developments is that – “It’s the content – stupid”

All these applications success, has been made possible by the availability of global geodata initially in the form of imagery at no cost to the consumer. The demand for good quality up to date information can now only increase as the user expectation has been set, and increasingly service providers will need to differentiate themselves based on their content.

This is an important lesson for ESRI with the upcoming launch of ArcGIS explorer, I’m sure explorer will be a more extensible development platform with a open architecture to other data sources, but will it be able to compete in terms of data availability?

The other big trend has been the democratisation of geographic information with community mapping projects and services such as Frapper becoming more popular and indeed the ability to create and publish geographic information is now possible for anybody with a laptop and cheap GPS. For the established Gi industry this is interesting at the moment, but I predict within five years open source geodata will be a reality.

It is disappointing that the GI industry in the UK remains so political with almost constant infighting between the “big fish” in the “small pond”, this seems always to have been the case, and I need to try to remain positive about it – but we are missing out on the innovation that is really moving the market forward elsewhere.

Written and submitted from home, using my home 802.11 network.

4 replies on “2005 The message of the year – “It’s the content – stupid””

You speak of the mapping and aerial photo imagery being “the content”. Yet there’s another type of content – relevant material for users in the form of events, photos, books & articles, vehicle & person tracking, podcasts, statistical overlays, historic maps – that will be seen as the “real content” of the future. This is the stuff that people will use Google Earth and MS Live to discover. Google’s and Microsoft’s bet is that the mapping layers are the essential commodoties to able to charge money for supplying timely and relevant “real content” to every person, mobile or static, as long as they have a means of payment. Hackers will be supplying real content for free alongside, whether mashed on top of MS and Google systems or not. I expect there will be some scandals involving the free stuff – gross invasions of privacy by tracking citizens without their knowledge, fake events leading to massacres, terrorism plots, geospam – which will turn the majority off it and into the safe hands of Microsoft and Google. The GI industry has must to work out how to be both the best commodity supplier, and the best custom supplier. For the latter to work, offering custom downloads to Google Earth (with licences understandable by regular Joes), to cover the areas Google hasn’t paid for of recent aerial imagery is essential. Of course they should be doing this already, with images stuffed into KMZ files.

I think it’s the content plus ease of access/use with a generous dash of “cool” thrown in. In the US, at least, MapQuest and Terraserver were around for years before Google Maps. Google Maps did not bring any more map/imagery content to the table here. Terraserver had a WMS API, but no way of putting anything on top. MapQuest pretty much had an “anti-API”, obfuscating the URLs so you would be hard pressed to do anything useful. Along comes Google, big and cool enough to be noticed, puts together the two kinds of content and adds an API that’s accessible to the average HTML hacker. The ability to *add* georeferenced information to the maps, i.e. the mashups, is what really made things fly. And, don’t forget the sheer joy of panning around with their AJAX interface.

In terms of GI, I will remember 2005 as the year when I was able to demo GIS to a class of 5-year olds without using the terms geographic, information or system. Only content, real and cool, that produced 20 pairs of wide-open eyes. In times where it is considered almost normal for 5-year olds to download porn and fill in your tax return, I think that counts for something.

But let’s not kid ourselves about content – i don’t think there will ever be such a thing as a free lunch. Good data will never be free and if it is free, you will probably pay the price later. What’s the value of 20 year old mapsheets, 5-year old imagery, or positions in unknown datums which misalign with your GPS by hundreds of metres? Unless you’re just looking at the scenery, not very much. Quality costs time and effort, and therefore money. Someone will have to pay for it, I guess the interesting question remains who.

2005 will probably also be remembered as the year when the GI market was finally split into distinct consumer and professional segments, where new players conquered the consumer market, and the traditional GIS vendors secured the professional market. The consumer interfaces will be better served by the new players who are not held back by 30 years of precise scientific views of GI… which is not a bad thing. I don’t think the professional and consumer markets can or should be served by the same people.

Happy Christmas! I for one will not touch a computer during that period, so good luck Ed!

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