Not so long ago, only a select group of users could take advantage of GIS tools and applications. The general public barely knew what GIS was, let alone knew how to use it. Today, the Web allows GIS data to be distributed via ever-evolving avenues, from the practical - traditional GIS services made available online - to imaginative applications like Google Sky, a Web-based, 3-D map of the universe.

Citizens, businesses and governments are finding new ways to reap the benefits of this revolution in how location data is understood and depicted. Data once found exclusively in GIS circles is appearing in common, everyday tools.

Some people wonder if these emerging applications should be considered GIS at all. Has the combination of location data and the Internet created something altogether new? How can government use new mapping tools to not only enhance citizen service, but also improve internal efficiency? And how do traditional GIS applications match up against the new kids on the block? These are just a few of the questions that have arisen in what may well be the golden age of GIS.


More Than a Map
For years, GIS existed as a tool for only technically skilled users. This was largely because most people couldn't tell what the heck these maps were supposed to depict. Companies such as ESRI and CARIS produced powerful mapping software that has been used for everything from wildlife management to sales and marketing; generally these products appealed only to a small community of experts.

Furthermore, GIS software was stand-alone and ran on large, high-end systems that could process the thousands of data points and layers needed to produce, say, a map of a suburban housing tract being developed in a floodplain. It was incredibly useful for a select number of people - but nevertheless, GIS wasn't much more than a complicated-looking map on a computer.

For millions of people today, the Web is as vital a utility as electricity or water. As technology is wont to do, GIS has not only adapted to the changing marketplace; it has also expanded beyond its traditional realm. GIS applications have transformed into simpler, user-friendly tools with mass appeal and - most important - they live entirely on the Web. Today, location data powers all kinds of programs, including many in government.

"Over the last several years, we've seen a move toward Web enabling many of our traditional GIS technologies, which has taken us into some really different opportunities to apply applications, which I think has dramatically changed the landscape for us," explained John Olesak, vice president of Northrop Grumman's Geospatial Intelligence Operating Unit. Olesak has more than 30 years of GIS experience under his belt, including work with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

"So if you think back a number of years ago to the geographic information systems being almost a boutique-type of capability, you really had to be a computer scientist, photogrametrist or geodesist to really take advantage of it," he said.

"Now we can deliver those applications into the hands of many more users at a variety of different levels. All with the simplicity of the tool to help us in decision-making, whether that's personal or from a business or homeland security perspective."

You could throw a dart at the map of the United States and probably hit a city or state that's doing something clever with location data. Whether it's "true GIS" or some sort of new hybrid depends on the individual application and whether you care about the distinction. In Utah, for example, traditional GIS tools exist side-by-side with Google Earth. The state built mapping tools that do everything from helping anglers find the best fishing to pinpointing all of the state's mining sites.

Chad Vander Veen  | 

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.