ESRI Founder Jack Dangermond Predicts the Future of GIS

New tools like Google Earth and Virtual Earth complement traditional GIS.

by / January 11, 2008

Any discussion about the present and future of the GIS industry is incomplete without perspective from the man some call the "Father of GIS," Jack Dangermond. He and his wife, Laura, founded industry heavyweight ESRI in 1969. Dangermond is regarded by many as a global authority on geographic information systems, and he has the educational credentials to back it up: stops at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona; the University of Minnesota; Harvard University's Laboratory for Computer Graphics and Spatial Analysis, and honorary doctoral degrees from Ferris State University and the University of Redlands. 

As interest in GIS grows and its applications are more frequently marketed to the general public, ESRI and its professional GIS tools may be approaching a crossroad. Dangermond took a few moments to share with Government Technology his insight about where GIS technology is now, where it is headed, and what impact new tools like Google Earth are making on what used to be a field accessible to only the technically skilled.  


Q: What impact have user-friendly geospatial visualization and mapping applications, such as Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth, made on the GIS marketplace?

A: Google and Microsoft have done an amazing job of publishing online the imagery basemaps with visualization technologies that are easy to use and are built on the Web 2.0 environment. The impact of these services on the GIS industry -- users and vendors -- has been positive. It has opened geospatial visualization to many new users.  

ESRI is working on several technologies that integrate these technologies with our own platform. Specifically ArcGIS is being extended to support REST [Representational State Transfer] services that can be mashed up using JavaScript with these consumer visualization technologies and their related basemaps. And at [version] 9.3, we will provide improved KML support.


Q: What do new "mash-up" products mean to ESRI? Do they take customers away, or do they enhance interest in GIS?

A: A more important question is, "What do they mean to our users?" 

Our users are the organizations that create and maintain geographic knowledge -- databases, maps and spatial analysis models. They also support geospatial applications for use within their mission areas: government, utilities, businesses and science. These Web environments provide new ways for our users to make their knowledge available to broader audiences. They do not replace GIS systems, but rather complement the way geographic knowledge is accessed by a non-GIS audience, sort of like publishing maps in a newspaper.


Q: Is the Web-based model the future for GIS apps?

A: There's no question that the Web, Web services, and service-oriented architecture (SOA) provide a new pattern for implementing GIS systems -- just like desktop and multi-user server patterns. The central focus of the Web environment is a GIS server, such as ArcGIS Server. Increasingly this platform will be used to serve data, analytic models and maps for others to use on the Web. The server will also be the platform for supporting integration of GIS knowledge into enterprise systems.   

My forecast is that as society becomes familiar with looking at things through geospatial visualization, they will be increasingly interested in services that go beyond simple maps and images. GIS servers managed by public and private GIS organizations will be used to provide these kinds of complementing services.    

While a great deal of GIS data will not be served in the open Internet (for security, cost, proprietary and privacy reasons), many subjects that are of interest to the public such as crime, natural hazards and environmental conditions, will be made available by the GIS community.  

While some have suggested that the traditional GIS organizations hoard

or hold back sharing of their information with others, experience would suggest that this is anything but true. The whole GIS concept and technology has been about sharing and integrating geospatial information for many sources. The Web and Web services pattern simply represent a new and powerful way to share information and collaborate in its use. 

Q: Can, for example, both ArcGIS and Google Earth coexist and prosper?

A: Yes. While these two techniques are designed for different purposes, they are being engineered to leverage each other. Making them interoperable benefits everyone.  GIS professionals can make their maps and information easily viewed in consumer viewers, and in turn, [the public] can enjoy these additional services. In addition, GIS users will consume more georeferenced Web information from many sources.  

Interoperability standards have made a difference here -- SOAP, XML, OGC, REST. 

ESRI has also implemented a full set of online services for use by our users, such as images, basemaps and related content. This content is free and easy to access by all of our clients, including a geobrowser client called ArcGIS Explorer. 

ArcGIS Explorer is a Google Earth-style viewer for professional GIS systems. It is being deployed in many organizations as the "enterprise GIS viewer" because it provides free content and supports visualization as well as the full spatial analysis functionality available in ArcGIS Server. This solution is ideally situated for casual users who want to use GIS but do not want to learn about the technology -- they just want to use it as a service. 


Q: From a technical standpoint, are Google Earth-type products GIS applications, or are they something else?

A: GIS is sophisticated technology, with a rich information model and data management infrastructure for maintaining geographic data. It also integrates, literally, thousands of tools for cartography, visualization, spatial analysis; it also supports many forms of customization to support a variety of workflows.   

The Web mapping/visualization tools represented by Google and Microsoft are focused on very fast and easy-to-use visualization of images and maps. They are engineered to do only a small portion of what a full GIS technology does. They are highly optimized for doing what they do, but are not suited for the more complex work that people using GIS tools do. [The differences] make these technologies interoperable for many benefits.


Q: How is ESRI adapting to what seems to be a changing marketplace for GIS applications?

A: This is a very exciting time for GIS and GIS professionals. We are seeing lots of interest, growth and adoption. This is driven, in part, by the growing awareness caused by consumer mapping/visualization platforms, and even more by the growing awareness and benefits that full GIS provide the organizations.   

ESRI technology is continuing to evolve -- particularly with respect to Web services. Our shift in focus to server technology is helping in this respect. We are seeing increasing interest in the ArcGIS Server platform, which allows our users to extend the applications of their geospatial knowledge to their colleagues in other departments, other organizations and on the Web using easy-to-use visualization browsers. What we also see is that our users seem to be migrating their systems from the desktop and departmental solutions into systems that interconnect many departments using shared GIS services: the SOA model. This Web services platform also is allowing users to integrate GIS and spatial processing with other IT business systems. This type of spatial enabling of business applications, while always possible, is now easier and promises to grow the GIS market enormously.

Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.


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