I had a fascinating conversation last week with a colleague from a GIS consulting company. And, quite by accident, failure was the focus of the conversation.

Our conversation started cordially, comparing notes on conferences we had attended, what we had learned etc. But when I asked “How is business”, a frown came over his face. “Rather badly as it happens”, was his response.

GIS Failure. What Next?

‘Badly’ was not what I had expected to hear. My colleague, let’s call him Peter, has been working in the GIS industry for over 20 years. I’ve often thought of him as a mover and shaker. He started his GIS consulting company in 2008 with a colleague. A brave decision given the financial state of the worlds economy at the time. Their motivation to start the company was what they saw as the impact the then infant mobile and cloud computing industries would have on GIS.

They started building and writing about mobile GIS. They saw the combination of mobile and cloud as driving the availability and demand for GIS. The fact that all mobile devices had built in GPS, they saw as increasing users interest in ‘the where’.

As it turned out Peter and colleagues were correct on all counts. Interest in ‘the where’ did indeed explode. But the path this demand took has proven less than predictable.

Peter’s company started life as a custom GIS development company. They worked with a mixture of clients; from hard core GIS users needing specific mobile GIS apps, to early adopters of the technology. Marketing was mostly focused on content generation through their blog. Here they shared case studies, opinions and more. They built quite quickly a reputation and following.

But mobile GIS was growing slower than expected, particularly within the traditional GIS user base. And as various GIS platforms were released, Peter’s team were seeing users challenged to move forward. They thus broadened their business offering to include GIS platform guidance: set up, configuration, data preparation, and more. Much of their blogging turned to discussions on building a solid GIS base; understanding and focusing on one problem and solution at a time. This refocus proved a mistake.

Peter’s company struggled to connect what they could see was a wide problem to the carefully designed solutions they had put in place. Nobody it seemed was reaching out for help. Then the custom GIS development market dried up.

The reasons for the collapse of the custom GIS market might be a topic for a future blog post. Peter explained in detail what he saw as the cause. In the short term Peter saw custom GIS development as a challenging environment. Too many GIS companies chasing too few projects (on a positive note, he did see custom GIS development roaring back in the medium term). The failure of their platform services arm, he had difficulty explaining. But he recognised theirs was a failed GIS business model. 

So “What next?” I asked. Peter looked away for a second. A wry smile came over his face. “This failure has helped us learn”, he said. “GIS is in the midst of enormous upheaval. That means huge challenges, and huge opportunities. We will take what we have learned, reset, refocus and keep moving forward“.

I have little doubt that Peter will succeed.

Author: Matt Sheehan

Matt Sheehan is a Principal at WebMapSolutions. Matt evangelizes geospatial technology solutions around the world through keynotes, articles, tweets and his books. Follow him on Twitter:

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