A couple of years ago, if you were involved with mapping and map-relevant data, everything — vendor products, titles, industry events, etc. — fell under the umbrella of the GIS (Geographic Information System) term. To be a part of the GIS cadre was to be in a small, select group of people who understood what they were trying to do and knew how to use the few tools available to get the job done. In many organizations, the GIS folks were part of IT, but they were more of a rogue unit that was little known outside of their group. Only a handful of business users knew about the GIS people, and almost no consumers did. GIS was highly technical, and as a result, highly inaccessible and not well known or widely used.
Mapping solutions are everywhere
Fast forward to today, where the integration of data and digital maps is commonplace. Consumers are familiar with GPS system from a variety of vendors like Garmin and TomTom, bought as part of cars or as aftermarket accessories. They are comfortable with the various free mapping services, from Google Maps and Live Maps from Microsoft to the more robust, but still free, Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth services. Many have plotted house prices on top of maps, not knowing or caring about the technology — such as the underlying map APIs — that make it increasingly simple to create what once would have been a complex application.
In the business and government arena, a similar explosion in mapping services and applications has made it common to see data overlayed on top of maps. Once the province of petroleum companies, government institutions like the USGS, and private organizations like the National Geographic Society, the use of data-enhanced digital maps has taken off. For example, sales teams using salesforce.com overly their clients and prospects on maps to analyze the pipeline and understand sales territories. Consumer products companies rely on maps with consumer behavior data to plot new product launches. News organizations combine news content and maps to understand hot spots in the world.
All of these recent trends have been largely driven by many technical people and organizations that never received their GIS membership card. They simply took advantage of emerging standards and public APIs, like OpenLayers and Google Map hooks, and created new services that would have once been labeled GIS, but today fall under a variety of names — mostly about what they are providing, not what they are.
A new GIS term needed
The result is that the term GIS has become irrelevant. It is effectively dead — killed by lack of use and applicability by today’s map and data creators and users. In the technology world, we have seen the need to move on from terms — even though their core concept is growing in relevance — simply because the old terms was weighed down by the negatives of past technology initiatives. Examples of terms that needed to be and were put to rest in the tech industry include:
- MIS. MIS, or Management Information Systems, was the typical name for the technology department of organizations before the PC became dominant. The term battled out with IS, or Information Systems, but has now been almost universally replaced by the high-level, generic term, IT (Information Technology). IT is not about mainframes and min-computers, the main systems in the MIS-era. It is about distributed computing, PCs, LANs/WANs, and other modern technology. MIS just didn’t fit the bill anymore, and was rightfully abandoned.
- EAI. Enterprise Application Integration, or EAI, is a term that fell out of favor over the past few years as Web services and service oriented architecture (SOA) took the industry by storm. To most customers, EAI came to embody expensive software, long-term or never-ending deployments, and proprietary integration technology that ratcheted up the price of the system. While organizations still need to buy integration solutions, no one wants to buy “EAI solutions” anymore, and no vendor wants to pitch its products as such, given the nomenclature baggage. The concept lives on, but the term is dead.
So the term GIS, like MIS and EAI, needs to be put out to pasture. The good news of for those who promoted GIS for so many years was that the concept didn’t die. The concept is more relevant than ever. But the solutions have evolved into something that became standards based, was more widely used, and had a much larger impact — all positive changes. GIS-name proponents may lament the passing of the term, but they should revel in the fact that the combination of geography and data is booming, and that geography-based solutions are now mainstream.
Now, for the real question. What will replace GIS?