Linda Stevens
Apr 9, 2019

Past to Present: The evolution of GIS

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FOSS4G, the premier open geospatial technology and business conference, is coming up this month. It seems fitting to take a step back and examine how GIS technology has developed over the years. At this year’s conference, OmniSci will showcase its cutting-edge geospatial capabilities, but to begin, let’s dig into the history of GIS and go back to where it all began… to the ‘80s.

With the commercialization of geographic information systems (GIS) in the early 1980s, users developed skills and capabilities around specific software offerings. Early GISs were expensive in both the annual maintenance fees and the hardware required to run it (mini-computers). The command-line user interface required specialization and deep knowledge to create usable and accurate results. Scripting in the software’s proprietary language required learning a geospatially-focused set of tools and code, and early GISs included specialized relational database management systems (RDBMS). Bringing GIS tools together with the RDBMS enabled creative and powerful solutions to be developed for automating and managing geospatial data.

Early GIS users wore multiple hats and worked around the clock to keep their organization's GIS operational and productive. They typically:

  • Understood the inner workings of the GIS
  • Created new geospatial solutions to solve problems
  • Automated data tasks with scripting
  • Digitized hardcopy maps and attributes
  • Prototyped early industry-specific data models

GIS expands to shared services

As GIS became more evolved, a concerted effort was made to transform GIS into a profession. GIS tools were taught in schools at all levels. Groups, certificates and programs that were designed to build a ready workforce were expanded and titles such as GIS Manager, Geographic Information Officer (GIO), GIS Specialist and more were established. Today, there are hundreds of groups (both online and offline), job descriptions and events catering to this profession. In GIS departments around the world, GIS professionals automate, manage and analyze geospatial data for their organizations. Sometimes thought of as gatekeeper, these professionals understand the uniqueness of geospatial data and analysis, and are typically part of a shared services team that:

  • Advises the organization on geospatial related topics
  • Produces maps, geospatial analysis, etc. on a project basis
  • Develops and maintains organization-specific solutions
  • Creates and maintains geospatial data for the organization

Job titles in the GIS profession are varied, but some of the main roles include:

Data Scientists - The role of the GIS professional is evolving, and much of what they do today is data focused. Knowing and understanding geospatial data is critical today as more and more geospatial data is being collected and analyzed. Many Data Scientists are expanding their roles outside of the GIS department and bringing geospatial insights into other roles. Who better to be the Chief Data Officer (CDO) of an organization that manages large geospatial infrastructure databases than a GIS professional?

Cartographers/Graphic Designers -  Mapping is emerging as a powerful visualization technique, especially for large and complex datasets. Traditionally, mapping has been the domain of cartographers, but more and more, graphic designers are being asked to design online maps as part of the user experience of a site or app. Understanding the power of map-making is critical, and cartographers partnering with graphic designers will be important as mapping becomes even more mainstream in the future.

Analysts - More than ever before, analytics are critical to making timely, well-informed decisions. From data analytics to business analytics, geospatial data is also becoming critical. GIS can provide the basemaps and geospatial infrastructure to power new and emerging technologies that will automate much of our world. Autonomous cars are a clear example of this, but along those same lines, utility switches, water gauges, cell phone towers, transportation routing and more will be powered with AI using geospatial data and analysis.

Competitive Advantage

Technology today allows for unprecedented data gathering, and much of this data has a geographical context. Modeling and understanding this data through a spatiotemporal lens greatly improves the usefulness of the data and extent of the results. Building on the knowledge and expertise of the GIS industry enables companies like OmniSci, an accelerated analytics platform powering sub-second queries on tens of millions of rows of geospatial data, to build spatiotemporal tools right in the platform.

Geospatial capabilities and skills are in increasing demand, and geospatial roles are moving to become an integral part in data analytics, AI, big data and more. Organizations that embrace the skills and expertise of GIS professionals early on will have a competitive advantage. To stay ahead of the curve, GIS professionals should continue to expand beyond the tactical skill set of GIS tools and connect with other departments across the organization.

See how OmniSci enables geospatial insights by bridging the divide between BI and GIS data with records in the billions of rows and more. Meet the team at FOSS4G San Diego from April 15-18, 2019 as a sponsor and exhibitor--stop by the booth to chat with OmniSci data engineers. You can also join these talks at FOSS4G to learn more:

OmniSci Keynote Talk

Tuesday, April 16th from 3:30-4:00 PM PST

Room Captains

Building a Real-Time Data Pipeline Using only FOSS Tools

Tuesday, April 16th from 2:30-3:00 PM PST

Room E10

Bringing Climate Data Down to Earth with OmniSci

Tuesday, April 16th from 5:30-6:00 PM PST

Room E1

Workshop: Leveraging GPU Analytics with OmniSci

Thursday, April 18th from 9:00-12:30 PM PST

Marine Lounge

Linda Stevens

Linda (Hecht) Stevens is the Founder and Managing Partner of 51by1, an innovative business development and marketing firm. Linda has extensive experience in the mapping, location analytics, geospatial and GIS markets. Prior to founding 51by1, she served as the Chief Marketing Officer at Esri for 8 years.