The Rise of Geoconsumerism

New Tools, the GeoWeb, Ubiquitous Data Bring “GIS for Everyone” Vision to Life

The vision of “GIS for everyone” has been around for a long time.  GIS is a transformational technology, with the ability to empower the masses to make better decisions. But from an implementation standpoint, for many years the “GIS for everyone” vision was not very practical.  For the most part, GIS use remained fairly exclusive; the tools, data, and decision making were relegated to a fairly small number of “GIS professionals.”

Happily, this landscape has changed over the course of the last few years.  Development of a new generation of geospatial tools, proliferation of the Internet as a backbone for sharing and collaborating, and widespread availability of geospatial data have laid the foundation.  The infrastructure is now in place to deliver powerful geospatial information and applications to almost every inhabitant of our planet.  We’re seeing the dawn of a new age; an age of “geoconsumerism,” where geospatial information developed by GIS professionals is packaged in a way that it is quickly and easily available for use by everyone.  “GIS for everyone” is here.

To illustrate this point, let’s look at an analogy: electricity.  Electricity has been around for a long time.  Scientists and researchers lead the “discovery” of many of the details of electricity.  Once many of the details were discovered, engineers set out designing and building the infrastructure to electrify the world.  Once the infrastructure was in place, inventors and industrial designers set about building products that leveraged the hard work of the engineers and delivered products to the masses—easy-to-use appliances for people who could benefit from this technology, but who didn’t need to know the details of amps and ohms, or how the electricity they were using was generated and where it actually came from.  Throughout this evolution, electricity became available to exponentially more people and the knowledge and skills needed to work with electricity became heavily stratified.


Evolution of the Electrical Consumption System.

We don’t often think of it in this way, because most of the world has reliable electricity infrastructure, but every time we do something as simple as flip a light switch or turn on a TV, we are touching one small end of a huge, complex, sophisticated system designed to generate and transmit electrical current across many miles and deliver it where, when, and how we need it, in the most transparent fashion possible.  The initial foundational work by the engineers to build the infrastructure, as well as ongoing work to maintain it and advance it, coupled with the brilliance of the inventors and industrial designers who give us products that leverage the electric infrastructure and make our lives easier and better, is often not fully appreciated by the consumer.  And in a mature system, that’s the way it should be: the consumer should flip the switch, and it should “just work” in the most transparent way possible.

Looking at geospatial information, GIS professionals have been working hard over the last couple of decades to build the infrastructure.  While not “complete,” this infrastructure is to the point where it is comprehensive enough that it can be of great value to many people beyond the traditional GIS audience.  Making the infrastructure accessible to “everyone” is now in the hands of developers.


Evolution of the Geospatial Information Consumption System.

Some developers are taking a more traditional approach, often developing sophisticated applications for very specific uses, while others are looking at ways to bring more simple applications to a much larger audience.  Both approaches are valuable and needed, and the line between them is beginning to blur as developers focus on using the most appropriate techniques, tools, and methods for the intended audience.

The next generation of geospatial applications will have broad relevance across society, will leverage the infrastructure built and maintained by GIS professionals, will make people’s lives easier and better, and will be transparent and “just work.”  Developers, this is your time.  “Everyone” is waiting.

2 thoughts on “The Rise of Geoconsumerism

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  2. Matt, good point about this being the prime time for developers. I work primarily with educators, and many of them want to use GIS to teach history, geography, earth or environmental science, and even mathematics and language arts. They don’t care about map projections, the geoid, or even metadata, necessarily – they just want GIS to work. Others want to look “under the hood” and not just teach with GIS, but to teach about GIS as well. My dream is that the US Dept of Education, NSF, and others will fund developers to take some of the richest educational lessons out there and geo-enable them – to create the NCGIA, if you will, in education, and be as big of a force for education as NCGIA was for GIScience.

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