in how government uses GIS data to improve citizen services and strengthen internal operations. And a role for traditional, more powerful GIS systems is likely to materialize as it has in Las Vegas, where ESRI tools like ArcGIS do the back-end work, and Google Earth delivers the data in a user-friendly format.

Chikai Ohazama, product manager for Google Earth, said the relationship between old and new need not be adversarial. He said both can coexist and prosper if each is put to proper use.

"ArcGIS is really good at doing analysis of geographical data," he said. "You're trying to do watershed-sort of calculations or all different kinds of models to analyze the data you have. Google Earth, its forte, is more like taking the information that's used, already analyzed, and presenting that to the public so anybody can look at it and see how it impacts them, or see what it means."

Ohazama refers to Google Earth as "GIS for the masses." It's an apt description, given how many people now can utilize location data for a thousand different purposes. All industries and technologies evolve, and the stalwarts eventually are usurped by the upstarts.

But the GIS industry may be different. Now, more than at any time in history, people have incredibly powerful and relevant ways to interact with the world they live in. Whether that world is real, or only a virtual representation, GIS has grown to be far more than a mere electronic map.

Perhaps most important is the fact that - as Chuck Herring, communications director at satellite imagery provider Digital Globe, said - this new generation of GIS is doing what every technology should eventually do: move from an exclusive world of a few experts to an expansive existence where all can reap its benefits to improve lives.

"I think that really the [GIS] revolution has been able to put the basic level of technology in many more people's hands so they can understand how they could utilize it," he said "Once they start using that, they realize the types of services they actually need."

Chad Vander Veen  | 

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.