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September 15th, 2015
Can you do GIS without GIS?

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This question is spurred by the Denver-based meetup Geospatial Amateurs as “GIS without GIS” is the theme of their gathering this week. They have two presentations of compelling geospatial analysis use cases, with one using R in RStudio and the other Jupyter Notebooks. One of these is a statistical desktop package that includes spatial analysis, and the other is a cloud-based data and analysis sharing environment. Both represent a maturity in spatial analysis and a portability of GIS concepts to other than an enterprise GIS.

As framed in the above presentations, it’s hard to argue that GIS isn’t what you’d call these cases, so the answer certainly tilts toward, “Yes, GIS can be done without GIS.” However, there are distinctions about what we mean by GIS and it’s constructive to hash out a few of these. It’s also instructive to see the continued mobility of computing code and processing capacity in far more flexible configurations that reward those that can code and be creative.

Individual or Organizational

 Increasingly, the accessibility of the tools and online data repositories are fueling an individual’s ability to create a meaningful system for a specific purpose. The key here is “system” where data is stored and added to, and the user gains increasing insight as more data are added and more analysis is done. This distinction is important, because a story map that is an endpoint for analysis and presentation, creating dialogue and interactivity, is not a GIS.

 The system distinction is also important in light of how GIS has traditionally been used and deployed. A GIS has been a central focal point for mapping and spatial analysis that serves large organizations as a means for better decision making. The isolated GIS department is slowly fading in importance as the centralized clearinghouse for this work. However, there still is the need in many organizations for central and ongoing GIS maintenance by the GIS department as an enabler for a variety of users and uses.

 Project or Operations

 An ongoing system fuels another distinction in terms of the type of work that is done with a GIS. In many cases, a deployment of a more portable GIS functionality for a specific problem set with the types of flexible tools discussed above is a short-term system. The goal may be the management of a short-term project or analysis to understand a specific problem rather than more complex interactions at a larger scale.

 The short-term system that incorporates geospatial data and employs spatial analysis for decision support is a GIS, but at a much smaller scale than the multi-year systems that provide ongoing and daily insight into operations. Certainly, there’s not a longevity or size clause that comes to play in the definition of a GIS, but the level of organizational commitment is a distinction.

When comparing project or small-scale GIS to a more traditional enterprise configuration, it’s interesting to ask whether a more mainstream GIS deployment is the obvious next step if the insight proves powerful and the commitment is increased.

 Progression Unknown

 As traditional GIS moves in parallel with these more portable configurations toward cloud platforms, more nimble analysis and multiple data visualization visualization endpoints, there’s a fuzzier picture of the technology’s progression. At this moment, there are certainly smaller systems looking to scale up and larger more long-term systems that are eager to scale down.

The pathways to both expand and contract GIS systems and functions are full of a large range of options these days. The software as a service model continues to make inroads with those that want to get out of the system maintenance mode. There are also a large number of apps that can be customized and pooled to solve many of an organization’s geospatial needs. And, yet the larger systems continue to increase functionalities with greater ease of use as a mature and robust platform that have a clearer pathway of progression as the system grows in importance.

 So much of today’s GIS marketing is about better data management or unleashing the power of what you’ve long collected. Clearly there’s more sunlight for our data and systems, coming out of the back room and into the handhelds of more and more individuals. As GIS continues this path toward broader use and less system management, will we still need the term GIS? Perhaps that’s a topic for a future Perspectives column.

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