PSM’s April issue begins the series Databased Mapping, about building the ultimate surveying database that not only stores surveying project data but also structures it to be able to produce accurate reports, analyses, and visualizations that do not depend on the way the data itself is stored.

The Web of Things

The theme of our Web Waypoints series since the first article in December 2011 has been the impact of web technology on GIS and, in turn, our profession. The initial article discusses the concept of the geoweb: location data married with the power of the internet’s global communications and technology. The geoweb is significantly more than just web-accessible geodata: the ability to dynamically display geographic data from various online sources using open-standards web services means that there is no need to download, convert, and integrate proprietary-format GIS datasets. In fact, you can utilize web technology to work with geospatial data on your local computer, but we’ll leave that twist for a future Web Waypoints article. 

The web is not only a powerful internet communications protocol delivering content on free browser software; it has also fostered the movement towards open-source geospatial data handling. By being open, as well as an international standard (ISO 15445), the web has spawned internet-technology collaboration efforts on a global scale. 

This, in turn, begat an abundance of open-source software development, especially in the areas of geospatial data storage and software. Parallel to proprietary GIS vendors, a spectrum of powerful, freely available geocentric software has been created, including:

  • QGIS and GRASS desktop GIS workstation software,

  • GeoServer and MapServer GIS web map servers,

  • PostGIS and SpatialLite, spatial extensions to the open-source PostgreSQL and SQLite relational databases, and

  • OpenLayers and Leaflet geospatial development frameworks.

Many of these have been described in our Web Waypoints series. Our point is that GIS users are suddenly in possession of arguably better tools with turn-on-a-dime development environments that are poised to challenge the established vendors. 

With the increasing availability of high-speed wired and wireless internet transmission channels, using web services is often just as fast, or faster, than desktop-bound software for many geospatial processing tasks. This is the happy confluence of technologies that makes the web such a game-changer for all modern businesses—including surveyors.


Is GIS Dead?

Notice that we’re not talking about GIS here, per se. “Spatialness” is just one part of the traditional who/what/why/when/where information paradigm. GIS stopped being unique once GPS hardware became a standard component of every smartphone. Positioning knowledge is now consumer mainstream. 

So, although the GIS ship sailed without surveyors, it may be on its way to being marooned by the geoweb-proficient professionals who are ignorant of the standard that GIS should be used only by database-proficient folks with proprietary software. 

The true marriage of geospatial data with the internet—via the web—is still in its infancy. This is why you’re seeing proprietary GIS companies quickly changing course to a web-centric marketing strategy.


Long Live the New GIS Paradigm

The focus going forward for positioning experts should be the accuracy and management of geospatial data en masse—leveraged by the web. My crystal ball tells me that these should be the winning short- and long-term bets for surveyors who embrace the web and its open-source software cornucopia as an integral part of their business models.

Short-term goals:

  • Learn and incorporate at least one open-source desktop GIS. A top contender in my book is Quantum GIS that runs on Linux, Unix, Mac OSX, Windows, and Android. Web-friendly, it supports vector, raster, and database formats. We’ll have an upcoming Web Waypoints article covering QGIS, making the case that it could be your combination CAD/GIS go-to tool.

  • Investigate switching a majority of your everyday computing functions to a web-centric model like the new breed of Chrome apps. Yes, they also work offline.

  • Experiment with storing and accessing your survey data in a web map server environment (Web Waypoints covered the OpenGeo software in January 2013).

  • Take some baby steps into geodatabase management by storing your survey data using the open-source PostgreSQL geospatial database supplied with OpenGeo. (Web Waypoints also touched on this in January: you can use PostGIS in a spreadsheet emulator mode with its Edit Grid tool.)

Long-term goals:

  • Do your large-scale data management and analysis (lidar, etc.) in the “cloud” as it’s meant to be used: a rent-by-the-hour resource that buys you computing power equal to the big boys but that you don’t have to maintain in-house. Flip a switch to start the charges and then flip it off when you’re done.

  • Provide your data via web map services to your clients: nothing downloaded (or modifiable), and it’s always the current version.

  • Adopt web-centric communications for your fieldwork workflows.

  • The biggest in the business acknowledges this paradigm shift: Esri describes “web GIS” as  “a new pattern for delivering GIS capabilities that lets people everywhere access and use geographic information on desktops, the web, tablets, and smartphones” (ArcUser, Fall 2013).

In a way, maybe it’s a good thing we didn’t get on the GIS bus after all. We would have been forced to the back and frustrated by trying to adapt our practices to the desktop GIS paradigm. Instead, we’re poised on a new frontier that values data first and foremost, developable by open-source tools that make the data available on an open-standards, globally accessible medium. This time around, we can drive our own bus.

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