Geo vs GIS, a long lasting theme

Is there a difference between Geo and GIS? Many people ask me this question, and when they do not ask I tend to tell them that there is that clear difference. Last week I had such a discussion again, and it kept me thinking. The main reason for this blog post is to put my ideas on virtual paper, so I can in the future to refer to it. Of course I know that this kind of subjects can also start a discussion. If that is the case, please feel free to add your comments.

The Definition

Lets start at the begin, the definition of GIS, since that is the source of much confusion. I believe that for decades all was clear: we had GIS software that processed Spatial data or Geo data. But then came online mapping tools and navigation systems. These systems work with geo information, so in the above description they will be GIS. But are they really?

All this depends on our definition of what Geographical Information Systems are. If we look at it from an information system perspective the GIS will be a wide range of techniques. For example when we take a definition as they can be found in dictionaries on the web for Information Systems (IS) we read:

information system: The entire infrastructure, organization, personnel, and components that collect, process, store, transmit, display, disseminate, and act on information. [from The Free Dictionary]

Other descriptions are similar, they all mention a mix of technical and human resources that in combination are able to process data. In this way we can talk about “the GIS department”, “the GIS software”, and even “the GIS data”. In this definition our navigation systems, departments and teams, and online mapping tools like Bing and Google Maps are GIS. As I stated before this definition is too wide to my opinion.

In the most strict definition one can say: GIS is the software, the toolbox. Geo is the information that the GIS needs. Geo is the model and GIS works with it. I do realize that this definition leaves the human resource side and the special hardware of our field out of the discussion. And this is exactly the point where complexity starts.

Let me summarize briefly the different definitions of GIS.

GIS is:

  1. The entire infrastructure, organization, personnel, and components that work with spatial data.
  2. The software and the spatial data.
  3. The software.

Much of the discussion depends on what you choose as a definition.

The Discussion

It should be mentioned that this GIS is nothing without the spatial data that can be processed with it. But is it part of the GIS? I often ask a question like: “Does the word processor also contain the texts you are about to write when you unpack the box?” These text for the word processor are like the geo data for the GIS.

So I make a clear distinction between Geo and GIS. The consequence of this distinction is that for me the only possible definition is the third one. And I realize that this conflicts with the general definition of Information Systems.

Let me even go one step ahead — especially when we would like to keep the information system definition — and propose to make more use of the term Spatial Information System when it comes to the definition for the infrastructure, organization, personnel, and components. In that way we can reserve the term GIS for the software and Geo (or Spatial) for the data. Combinations with other fields like Spatial Intelligence but also the place of Remote Sensing may come more usable in this way.

I wonder what others are thinking…

Happy GISDay

A week ago (on Thursday) someone tweeted “happy postgisday”, and yes, it was the day after GISDay. This yearly event is, as is stated on the GISDay website: “The annual salute to geospatial technology and its power to transform and better our lives”. Looking at the event map as published on the website I was amazed by two things, firstly the wide spread of events all over the globe, secondly that there was no event planned in The Netherlands, although there exists a good and well organized GIS community. And I did not organize any event either.

My thought was: What could I have organized to bring GIS to a wider audience? The following themes come to my mind:

The application of GIS in area’s where you do not expect it.

Not so long ago, about a decade or so, GIS mainly took place in the drawing room. Networks were not any longer designed and maintained on the large drawing boards with pen and paper. In the GIS era these drawing boards were replaced by digitizer boards and large monitors, and the blueprints were replaced by bits and bytes. With all this development answering questions on the assets became easier. Examples of questions you can answer in this context are: What is the current state of our network, what type of asset had the biggest interference sensitivity over the last period, what customers should be informed about the upcoming repair work?

As said in an earlier blog post on this subject the main shift appeared when navigation systems became more and more a commodity. Nowadays  GIS is not any longer limited only to the drawing room. We see GIS in many different contexts, and different industries, on places where you would not expect it. To tell this story may be my first presentation.

Your safety monitored with GIS

The second story is about Geo-data and boundaries. In European context Inspire is becoming more and more grown up. Inspire is the initiative that should create an infrastructure to make geo information and spatial data better accessible. When you cross a border (and in this case I am not even talking about the country borders), it may well be that the data that you find on the other side of the border is not directly usable. This can cause problems, for example when a river gets polluted, and we want to take steps to prevent the pollution to get into the drinking water supply chain. Best is to have data that can be easily exchanged between different organizations.

Different local governments store their data in different ways, this is due to for example the GIS software they use. The main result of this is that if we want to get a full overview of data available we should first create a common language. But not only we should store the spatial data in a common way, it must also be found across the different borders. So labels to the data and the datasets, the metadata, must be generalized too. In the last years we have seen a fast growth of the so called geo-portals, in the future these will be the entrance to the European data. They are a wonderful way to tell a larger audience how spatial data, and the systems storing and analyzing this data work together on monitoring safety.

The past analyzed with GIS

A growing theme in historical studies is the application of GIS to study spatio-temporal processes. Mapping differences between two or more different time periods, and showing where changes appeared. In the last decades I have published a number of these studies. For example on detecting changes in the urban landscape (how a city developed). But there is so much more that can be done on this subject. In the book “Past Time, Past Place” Anne Knowles collected a number of very good examples on how GIS can be applied in history. This book was published in 2002 and since then there has been a lot of new development. For example GIS has become better accessible and more a commodity in the historical sciences.

If we apply GIS to history we also come to the subject of story telling. With the historical datasets that we have available we can tell a story that may have been hidden before. This story can make the past more interactive, how odd this may sound. We can show the development of a town, starting from a little village on a sand ridge, and how, based on the written deeds we find in the archives, we see that over time the village grew. For example we can show the map, and how more and more streets and houses appear. In addition to this map we can add the deeds on which we base our findings to the different plots.

Next year… GISDay

Next year on GISDay (Wednesday, November 20, 2013) I would like to show small projects on these three examples, mainly to introduce GIS to a wider audience. In the mean time I will post examples here.

Infographics, GIS, and Mapping

In order to present complex information in a quick and efficient way we see a growing use of infographics. Not only in sciences but also in journalism we see that more and more often infographics are used. A recent announcement of an on-line course by Alberto Cairo, the author of the book “The Functional Art”,  has already set its counter to over 1700 subscriptions within a few days. The rapid growth of the number of submissions on websites like visual.ly and easel.ly show that more and more people find their way into this field too.

Dashboards with infographics, or more

Maps and mapping are an important group within the infographics. But when we look at the many manuals that appear on websites on how to create infographics there is actually not a real list of tools available for this type of presentation. I look at the infographics from my field of geo-information where we are often confronted with questions on how to present large amounts of complex data, for example with customers that want to have a quick and clear insight in the current state of their assets.

What many companies would like to have is Business Intelligence-like dashboards, but with the ability to ask questions in a GIS way, and then to present the results in a infographics manner. Is that too much to ask? It should not be, and in the last years I have seen many very nice examples on presenting location data in a way that comes close.

GIS Software

ESRI, the giant in Geographical Information Systems (GIS), offers us many ways to present location linked data. With some basic knowledge and the great geo data collection that comes with the software you can quickly produce some basic maps. You can even do the statistics behind the maps within the software. But let me stress that I did on purpose use the word “basic” twice in previous line! GIS and dealing with geo data is a complex discipline. Besides the software is rather expensive for when you want to use it every now and then. Apart from ESRI there are other alternatives that offer ways to store, analyze, and present your geo data. Examples of other software are Mapinfo, Bentley Map, and GeoMedia.

An open source alternative is QGIS, an aggregation of Quantum and GIS. QGIS is a very good tool when it comes to the creation of maps every now and then. Contrary to ESRI ArcGIS it is more difficult to install, although much has improved recently. A page you should definitely see when it comes to learning how to do the basic GIS operations is “how to perform basic GIS operations in QGIS in the most straightforward way“. It has a some neat tricks. When it comes to the data there are also many open source inventories.

And after you have worked (or struggled) with the tools for a while you will probably find out that we are still far from the dashboard that I mentioned above.

Mapmaking

One thing that I want to mention is that map making is a profession too. Mapping is more than just plotting your data on a map that you have found on the Internet, or in a template that comes with your office suite. But do not get me wrong, first rule is that you pick the base layer that suits the job. Over the years I have been to many great conferences that primarily focused on how to present geo data, to know that you can make big mistakes there too. Unfortunately that is what I see happening in more and more infographics. Although the learning curve is steep, GIS can be of great use here.

Let me conclude to tell you: there is a long way to go, but there is definitely a great link between GIS and infographics. More on both, and especially on how to map your data, is to come.

Continued in part 2

Location everywhere

Already for some time I have wanted to write about indoor positioning. Since Indoor positioning is going to be a future direction for a number of fields, including GIS. I had collected articles and did my research. And then yesterday by following another post (on big data, food, and visualization) I end up at a (Dutch) post from Numrush: “Indoor navigation system Wifarer announces first customer” [My translations, EK]. Author Johan Voets states in his post exactly what I wanted to tell you in my blog: “Indoor navigation. It sounds a bit unnatural, but it is definitely a fast growing market.”

In my earlier blogs on the fast developing GIS market I already indicated that mobile devices, such as smart phones, offer great possibilities. On a post from envisioningtech the location awareness is mentioned in the context of new sensors. The article uses the term “planned spontaneity”, as where – based on earlier experiences – your system takes decisions, based on a certain context. And yes this context does include location too.

The four elements

In another recent study Latitude mentions the 4 I’s: “four elements—the ‘4 I’s’—that will continue to play a significant role in our experiences with narrative-based media”. Immersion, interactivity, integration, and impact. To cite their report even further: “Immersion and interactivity primarily help an audience to go deeper into a story, while integration and impact are about bringing a story of out of the screen, into our actual lives.”

Location based services can play a major role in experiencing the 4 I’s. What if we can offer extra experience based on the current location? From my background as an art historian and travel guide I think I can say something about this story telling effect here too. People want to go around through a town or a museum and as a guide you need to be pointing out the particularities of a certain object or view. Applications that do so already exist in “open air” situations. And also many musea offer you the possibilities for an online guided tour. I have seen over the last years many of these wonderful initiatives.

But in musea we still see people typing in coded numbers on devices in order to receive the stories and the context. The Indoor Geo Database will include many Points Of Interest. And our smart algorithm will select the right combination of these POI for the current context. Many stories to tell, and based on your interest I can show you the same museum in a number of different ways.

“will people even indoors use the smartphone to navigate?”

Voets ends his post with “The question is: will people even indoors use the smart phone to navigate?”. My answer is clear, Yes they will. And Indoor Positioning is not only to be used in a museum or cultural context. What if I could go through a department store where my smart phone shows me the latest gadgets and offers, based on my recent online searches? Or maybe the system could combine earlier experiences and show me something real life that I was looking for a month ago.

Does this sound scary, or do you see the new possibilities? Like I said before I see new, and serious applications of this technology, in many different fields.

Thoughts on Mobile Geo Apps

Everyone following the tech-news in the last week must have stumbled over the new Apple Mapping application in iOS6. In about a week time we have seen an increase in the social media on the hash-tags “map” and “geo” in combination with “mobile”. This is a reason for me to write something about this subject.

It looks like many people are just finding out now that mapping is work for professionals and should not be taken too lightly. Making navigation software and the maps that come with it has many pitfalls. The one-way street that causes the long detour, the cycle or bus lane (complete with a small barrier) as connection between 2 street parts that cannot be crossed by car, the viaduct or tunnel that is invisible. Many volunteers that have worked (for more than 8 years already) on OpenStreetMap know how much work it is.

But not just navigation systems are using your geo-location. And not all geo apps will show you a map or a current location. There are more and more apps that use your location for numerous reasons.

Users and Geolocation

In May 2012 a number of media reported that “74 percent of US smartphone owners use the device to get real-time location-based information”. This was based on the outcomes of Pew Internet Research, and only figures for the US were given. These outcomes, and the increase since it was measured the year before, show the growing interest in location based information. Naturally we should not forget the number of people that do not know how to switch the feature off… At the same time we also see the growing awareness of people that have privacy concerns, as a study from ISACA that was published around the same time shows.

Increase in Mobile Applications using Geo

In relation to the studies mentioned above we have seen an increase in mobile mapping applications on smartphones over the last years. Many of these apps are caused by the rapid growth of mobile devices of course. But it is also the attractiveness of the maps and how images can be used to enhance other content, that drives developers to work on apps that use images. I believe this direction is good. And in short time the professional applications can benefit from the lessons learned by the app developers.

Not only in the field of the navigation and the social media we can expect new developments if it comes to location based services. There are many more fields where we can apply location. Like in the field of GIS where we see a fast growing number of users from different fields, we will see that many new apps will find out that knowing the location opens new opportunities.

But that is something for my next post…