This column is a follow-up to one written a few months ago, where we asked, “Will GIS in the Cloud free GIS from IT overlords?” While that column focused on issues of stunted creativity at the hands of those that control hardware and network access, it failed to address the very real issue of data gatekeepers who strictly limit access to geospatial information. Without open systems, we greatly diminish the potential of GIS to help us quickly reach a consensus for taking action.
The full promise of GIS is achieved when multiple disciplines share information on a common platform to improve operations by providing greater transparency to different departmental data sets. A stark reminder of the inclination to create data silos was on display at the recent Esri User Conference when John Thomas, the director of planning for the Utah Department of Transportation, spoke of having to use a thumb drive to beg access to data from different departments to gain an overall picture of operations. His organization’s move to online and cloud-hosted geospatial functionality has fostered dramatic change by removing gatekeepers and instead sharing the big picture more broadly both internally and with the public.
People Create Silos
When writing glowingly about the potential and promise of geospatial technology, we often overlook people challenges. While today’s digital technologies take a bold leap toward data re-use, and move well beyond static map products, there’s often stiff resistance to more flexible and open ways of doing business. The GIS veteran that has always been the go-to person for maps and map insight, can feel protective of their power, worried about the current quality of their data and how it might be degraded, and concerned about untrained interpretation.
The new generation of online mapping tools allow for measured control of user experience, and a great deal of flexibility on how maps are delivered, including multiple device display options, and the means to create narratives about the data that is presented. A cloud strategy forces an organization to overcome the reluctance to open up data and mapping tools to others. Some of the surprisingly positive benefits to those that were once the sole interpreters is that more use breeds a better system, and elevates their expertise as both instructors and the ultimate interpretive authority.
One-Off Maps in Demand
The evolution of Web mapping has gone through many iterations, from the days when GIS functionality was directly duplicated online, despite performance issues, to today’s flexibility for the creation of maps and apps that neatly compartmentalize map data and functionality to deliver insight into narrow topics. We’re moving away from data portals into data presented to specifically answer just a few questions.
With this improved flexibility and simplicity comes the need to improve presentation. Additionally, with greater access comes the means to work collaboratively across departments to create shared mapping tools and to present commonly accessed data in more readily consumed forms. Those traveling the path to more open mapping are still in control, but now the emphasis is on user experience and the means to speed insight.
Eliminating Pain Points
GIS in the Cloud has been advocated in the past, and is manifest in many offerings from numerous vendors. The offering that is ArcGIS Online combines multiple cloud components including Software-as-a-Service, Platform-as-a-Service and Data-as-a-Service. Each element of this offering removes a pain point for broader organization access to information as well as providing tools to enhance operations.
The case study example of UDOT during the plenary session at the Esri/UC was a highlight for many, because it provided a glimpse at the positive institutional benefits of a technological leap forward. The greater flexibility in how maps and mapping functionality can be created, presented and shared via cloud software and services ushers in a new era of geospatial connectivity, insight, and collaboration.
Collectively, the issues of IT overlords and geospatial data hoarders, speak to the benefits of a technology construct that overcomes human barriers. The cloud addresses the need to better manage computing resources and control in order for our systems to perform optimally across departmental boundaries. Because of this outside managed resource, the cloud has the potential to better allocate access to computing infrastructure as well as to open up system and data access to broader communities.