Celebrating 55 years of improving spatial thinking with (GIS) technology

GIS Day 2017

Posted by Todd Pierce

Today, November 15, is GIS Day—an annual celebration established in 1999 to showcase the power and flexibility of geographical information systems (GIS).

Not only is GIS more powerful than ever before—it is also vastly more accessible.  Anyone with Internet access can create custom maps based on publicly available data, from real-time traffic conditions to environmental risk factors, to local shark sightings. Software developers, even those at small companies or startups, now have access to APIs for integrating advanced GIS tools and functionality into their programs.

As the Director of EIM and GIS Development at Locus, I lead efforts to integrate GIS with our software applications to deliver our customers’ spatial data using the latest GIS technology. Let us take a look at how far GIS has come since I started working with it and at some of the new and exciting possibilities on the horizon.

Origins of GIS

Before you can understand where GIS is today, it helps to know how it started out. This year is the 55th anniversary of the work done by Roger Tomlinson in 1962 with the Canada Land Inventory. We consider this the birth of GIS, and Mr. Tomlinson has been called the “father of GIS”.

The original GIS used computers and digitalization to “unlock” the data in paper maps, making it possible to combine data from multiple maps and perform spatial analyses. For example, in the image shown here from the Canada Land Inventory GIS, farms in Ontario are classified by revenue to map farm performance.

An early GIS system from the Canada Land Inventory, in Data for Decisions, 1967
An early GIS system from the Canada Land Inventory, in Data for Decisions, 1967
Photo: Mbfleming. “Data for Decisions (1967).” YouTube, 12 Aug. 2007, https://youtu.be/ryWcq7Dv4jE.
  Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

In 1969, Jack Dangermond founded Esri, which became the maker of, arguably, the world’s most popular commercial GIS software. Esri’s first commercial GIS, ARC/INFO, was released in 1982, and the simpler ArcView program followed in 1991. That year, 1991, is also the year I started working with GIS, although I used the TransCAD system from Caliper before starting with Esri software a few years later.

Back then, GIS work required expensive software packages installed on personal computers or large mainframe systems. There was no Google Maps; all map data had to be manually loaded into your software. Getting useful data into a GIS usually required extensive file manipulation and expertise in coordinate systems, projections, and geodesy.

While the government, utility, and resource management sectors used GIS heavily, there was not much consumer or personal use of GIS. As for me, I spent a lot of time in my first job digitizing paper maps by hand or trying to figure out why the map data I had loaded into a GIS was not lining up properly with an aerial photo.

Esri’s ArcView 3.2 for desktop computers (from the 1990s)
Esri’s ArcView 3.2 for desktop computers (from the 1990s)

The Google Revolution

How much has changed since those early days! After the release of OpenStreetMap in 2004, Google Maps and Google Earth in 2005, and Google Street View in 2007, GIS has been on an unstoppable journey—from only being used by dedicated GIS professionals on large computers in specific workplaces, to be accessible to anyone with an internet browser or a smartphone. High-quality map data and images—often the most expensive item in a GIS project in the 1990’s — are now practically free.

Just think how revolutionary it is that anyone can have instant access to detailed satellite images and road maps of almost anywhere on Earth! Not only can you perform such mundane tasks as finding the fastest route between two cities or locating your favorite coffee shop while on vacation—you can also see live traffic conditions for cities across the globe; view aerial images of countries you have never visited, and get street level views of exotic places. Back in 1991, such widespread access to free map data would have seemed like something straight out of science fiction.

Traffic conditions in London, 3:30 pm 10/16/2017, from Google Maps
Traffic conditions in London, 3:30 pm 10/16/2017, from Google Maps
South Base Camp, Mount Everest, Google StreetView
South Base Camp, Mount Everest, Google StreetView

Mashups in the cloud

Obviously, the amount of spatial data needed to provide detailed coverage of the entire globe is far too large to be stored on one laptop or phone. Instead, the data is distributed across many servers “in the cloud.” Back in the 1990s, everything for one GIS system (data, processing engine, user interface) needed to be in the same physical place—usually one hard drive or server. Now, thanks to the internet and cloud computing, the data can be separate from the software, creating “distributed” GIS.

The combination of freely available data with distributed GIS and the power of smart phones has led us to the age of “neogeography”—in which anyone (with some technical knowledge) can contribute to online maps, or host their maps with data relevant to their personal or professional needs. GIS no longer requires expensive software or cartographical expertise; now, even casual users can create maps linking multiple data sources, all in the cloud.

Google’s MyMaps is an example of a tool for easily making your maps. Maps can range from the playful, such as locations of “Pokemon nests,” to the serious, such as wildfire conditions.

Google MyMaps of Pokemon Nest Locations
Google MyMaps of Pokemon Nest Locations

These online maps can be updated in real time (unlike paper maps) and therefore kept current with actual conditions. Such immediate response is instrumental in emergency management, where conditions can change rapidly, and both first responders and the public need access to the latest data.

Map showing wildfire and traffic conditions in northern California, 10/16/2017
Map showing wildfire and traffic conditions in northern California, 10/16/2017

Furthermore, software programmers have created online GIS tools that let non-coders create their maps. These tools push the boundaries of distributed GIS even further by putting the processing engine in the cloud with the data. Only the user interface runs locally for a given user. During this period of GIS history, I created several mashups, including one for viewing natural hazard risks for my hometown. For this application, I combined several data types, including property lines, flood plains, landslide vulnerability, and wildfire risk.

Floodplain data for Buncombe County, NC
Floodplain data for Buncombe County, NC

Programming GIS with APIs

Another significant advance in GIS technology is the ability to integrate or include advanced GIS tools and features in other computer programs. Companies such as Google and Esri have provided toolkits (called APIs, or application programming interfaces) that let coders access GIS data and functions inside their programs. While neogeography shows the power of personal maps created by the untrained public, computer programmers can use APIs to create some very sophisticated online GIS tools aimed at specific professionals or the public.

During my 10 years at Locus, I have helped create several such advanced GIS tools for environmental monitoring and data management. One example is the publicly-available Intellus application that Locus Technologies developed and hosts for the US Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory. It uses an Esri API and distributed GIS to provide access to aerial images and many decades of environmental monitoring data for the Los Alamos, NM area. Users can make maps showing chemical concentrations near their home or workplace, and they can perform powerful spatial searches (e.g., “find all samples taken within one mile of my house in the last year”). The results can be color-coded based on concentration values to identify “hot spots”.

Map from Intellus showing Tritium concentrations near a specified location
Map from Intellus showing Tritium concentrations near a specified location

Locus Technologies also provides more sophisticated forms of analysis in its EIM cloud-based environmental management system. For example, contour lines can be generated on a map showing constant values of groundwater elevation, which is useful for determining water flow below ground. With such powerful spatial tools in the cloud, anyone at the organization, from facility managers to scientists, can easily create and share maps that provide insight into data trends and patterns at their site.

Groundwater contour map
Groundwater contour map where each line is a 10 ft. interval, from the Locus EIM system

There’s a (map) app for that

One particularly exciting aspect of GIS today is the ability to use GIS on a smartphone or tablet. The GIS APIs mentioned above usually have versions for mobile devices, as well as for browsers. Programmers have taken advantage of these mobile APIs, along with freely available map data from the cloud, to create apps that seamlessly embed maps into the user experience. By using a smartphone’s ability to pinpoint your current latitude and longitude, these apps can create personalized maps based on your actual location.

A search in the Apple AppStore for “map” returns thousands of apps with map components. Some of these apps put maps front-and-center for traditional navigation, whether by car (Waze, MapQuest, Google), public transit (New York Subway MTA Map, London Tube Map), or on foot (Runkeeper, Map My Run, AllTrails). Other apps use maps in a supporting role to allow users to find nearby places; for example, banking apps usually have a map to show branches near your current location.

What’s really exciting are the apps that allow users to enter data themselves via a map interface. For example, HealthMap’s Outbreaks Near Me not only shows reports of disease outbreaks near your location, but it also lets you enter unreported incidents. The GasBuddy app shows the latest gasoline prices and lets you enter in current prices. This “crowdsourcing” feature keeps an app up-to-date by letting its users update the map with the latest conditions as they are happening.

The Outbreaks Near Me app for phones (left) and the GasBuddy app for tablets (right)
The Outbreaks Near Me app for phones (left) and the GasBuddy app for tablets (right)

Here at Locus Technologies, we use the power of GIS in our Locus Mobile app for field data collection. Users can enter environmental data, such as temperature or pH measurements from a monitoring well, and upload the data back to the EIM cloud for later review and analysis. The Locus Mobile app includes a map interface for navigating to data collection points and tracking visited locations. The app also lets users create new data collection points “on the fly” simply by clicking on the map.

Locus Mobile map interface
The map interface in the Locus Mobile app; blue dotted circles indicate locations that are not yet started.

Looking to the future

Where will GIS go from here? It’s possible that augmented reality, virtual reality, and 3D visualization will continue to expand and become as ubiquitous as the current “2D” maps on browsers and phones. Also, the “internet of things” will surely have a GIS component because every physical “thing” can be tied to a geographical location. Similarly, GIS can play an important role in “big data” by providing the spatial framework for analysis. It will be interesting to see where GIS is when we celebrate the 20th GIS Day in 2019!

Thanks to the GIS Timeline for providing some of the history for this article.


Locus employee Todd Pierce

About guest blogger— Dr. Todd Pierce, Locus Technologies

Dr. Pierce manages a team of programmers tasked with development and implementation of Locus’ EIM application, which lets users manage their environmental data in the cloud using Software-as-a-Service technology. Dr. Pierce is also directly responsible for research and development of Locus’ GIS (geographic information systems) and visualization tools for mapping analytical and subsurface data. Dr. Pierce earned his GIS Professional (GISP) certification in 2010.

Interested in Locus’ GIS solutions?

Introducing Locus GIS+. All the functionality you love in EIM’s classic Google Maps GIS for environmental management— now integrated with the powerful cartography, interoperability, & smart-mapping features of Esri’s ArcGIS platform!

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