Let’s step back a little in time. Remember the dot com boom in the 90’s, when the Internet went from being a tool only known to academics to ubiquity. We all began feverishly buying computers, and installing Web browsers to access network based applications. Financially it was a boom and bust period, but the new paradigm that was the Internet was here to stay. The world of GIS was then a world filled with desktop nerds working with ArcInfo, ArcMap and the like. With Esri getting wind of this new shift to networked computing the IMS products were released; we remember fondly MapObjects IMS and ArcIMS. Using the Internet we began to be able to build networked GIS apps which allowed developers to share with everybody interactive maps.
Exciting times indeed. But for those developing Internet GIS apps there were two major frustrations:
1) Geo-data was hard to find; in particular base maps.
2) There were no good API’s or tools for developers to use. Many older developers remember well building Internet GIS applications from scratch in Flash; cool output which took an age to build. For those unfamiliar with API’s, these are the building blocks for developing applications, they make the process easier. In the same way as constructing a car is the process of combining pre-built components; wheels, engine etc, this is the same process developers walk through to build an application. Imagine how long and painful car making would be if you had to build every component – wheel, engine – from scratch!
Then along came Google. Gobs of data and API’s galore. Suddenly the world changed; slippy maps, easy to find data and no more reinventing the wheel when it came to coding. It was a joyous time. But for those of us in the GIS world, we were between a rock and a hard place; Google maps was not GIS. Esri were shocked into action. The mid 2000’s was Google catch up time. Then came the cloud and mobile.
The cloud provided server based services hosted by third party organizations. What does that mean in English? That organisations no longer need to host, maintain and configure services and servers in house. No set up, no load balancing and 24×7 access to data and apps. And mobile? Access to this data and these apps from anywhere at anytime. No longer were we limited to office or home based computing. Together mobile and the cloud have set the stage for a new paradigm, as impactful as the Internet.
The Cloud and ArcGIS Online
So now we can interact with data in 3 ways; via home and office PC’s using the Web and desktop applications respectively, and from mobile devices. For GIS this means different tools for different uses. Before we delve deeper here, lets step back and discuss again the cloud. For those using Esri software, it is now possible to have ArcGIS Server hosted and maintained by the third part organisations in the cloud; all that is required is a license and monthly hosting fee. But, an organisation still needs experts familiar with ArcGIS Server to publish data. Now suppose this process was made simpler. Suppose publishing geo-data needed no special skills; imagine data being published in ArcGIS Server without the need to directly interact with Server. Welcome ArcGIS Online. This new cloud based mapping platform has made publishing geo-data as ArcGIS server services childs play. More than that is comes with tonnes of data, and allows for easier development of GIS applications.
Web, Mobile and Desktop Complimentary Apps
Let’s illustrate how the world of GIS is about to become more complimentary and complete. Using ArcGIS Online as the central platform, for storage and access to data, let’s look at collaboration using mobile, Web and desktop applications. Imagine a team of field workers. They each have iPads with an installed mobile ArcGIS Online editing app. Their task is to collect point data based on current location, to edit the attributes of each point and add an image attachment to the new point feature. When done each new point feature is uploaded and stored in a (hosted feature) service in ArcGIS Online. Next an office based GIS analyst, through ArcMap 10.1, now has access directly to this new data. She can perform analysis on this and other organisational data. Finally an executive, loads a Web application in his browser. He is presented with a dashboard, which allows him to view this data, search and query based on specific criteria, and visualise the data in map, or chart form to better see patterns and help with decision making.
This is truly a collaborative, complimentary system. One day in the not too distant future we will wonder how we ever used GIS in the isolated vertical way we use it today.