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As we have discussed before in this blog, mobile enabled GIS cloud technology is are changing how and who uses GIS. As we suggest in the title of this blog the future of GIS is here today. Let’s take a step back and look at the current landscape.

Today’s GIS Requirements and Mobile Enabled GIS Cloud Technology

There are a range of core elements required by our clients which are now provided by leveraging the new technological advances. These include:

1) Centralised data – away from a stove pipe approach to data.
2) Privacy – protecting data remains important
3) Data access from any device – PC, laptop, smartphone and tablet accessibility.
4) Simple targeted applications – no more complex workflows and ‘swiss army knife’ type apps.

So what solutions are now available which leverage cloud technology and target location based data?

Esri and ArcGIS Online: Leading the Charge

After a year of working with ArcGIS Online (AGOL), we had a round table last week among our GIS developers and asked the question “what are the 6 things you most like about ArcGIS Online”. The results of our informal poll are below:

a) Web Maps – we all agreed the use of a single web map to express all map layers is a big deal. In the past too much work was needed by the developer to reach out to different sources for layers, and to deal individually with each layer (projection etc) before displaying in a map. The web map has simplified that process, they form form the base for Web and mobile maps and development. They can also be embedded in a web page, rather like a youtube video. Now that is cool.

b) Authentication and Groups – being able to control who has access to your data was often a request our clients had when it came to ArcGIS Server development. It meant we had to develop custom authentication services. The ArcGIS Online Portal has authentication built in. Marvellous. Our code is simpler, and our clients have a greater level of control over data access.

c) Data publishing – simplicity and empowerment when it comes to data publishing we agreed were key advantages of AGOL. It is now easy for users with limited or no GIS training to publish shapefiles, csv and other data sources to ArcGIS as layers. Combining these layers into a single web map is also easily done. Esri have made working with a complex GIS server like ArcGIS now very easy. That empowers WebMapSolutions clients, and simplifies the work of GIS developers.

d) Hosted Feature Services – these are the equivalent of WFS in the open source world. They are editable layers, and are one of the options presented to users when publishing data to AGOL. For those who wish to view and edit shapefiles on a mobile device – a common request and one which demanded extra developer work and time – publishing data as a hosted feature service is pure simplicity. WebMapSolutions have been working closely with various local governments developing GIS and map-centric applications which leverage hosted feature services.

e) Free Data – Esri have been very smart in providing free base maps with AGOL. This steps us past the days when developers/clients needed to hunt around for appropriate base map data for their area of interest. Users still have the option to publish their own base imagery, or purchase high resolution imagery through AGOL. But the mere fact that so much base map data is available for free in AGOL is a huge benefit.

f) Desktop Integration – the ability to centralise geodata in one cloud based location is huge. This has made it possible for companies such as ours to provide applications fo field workers; online/offline editing for example. For non GIS users such as our Parks Finder application, executive dashboards to improve managements data access and decision making. But what about the GIS analysts; those who remain at the core of processing and analyzing GIS data? Esri’s decision to integrate the 10.1 desktop products such as ArcMap with AGOL has allowed analysts to access to all AGOL web maps and services. We like the fact that AGOL serves all GIS users including those using desktop products, and increasingly an ever wider non GIS audience.

Open Source: Integration Provides Solid Solutions

As ever the open source world provides a plethora of tools to satisfy the new GIS demands. For web and mobile development there is the excellent Leaflet Javascript library. With a large well supported community, this is an advanced Web mapping API. The combination of Geoserver and PostGIS provide the backend muscle equivalent to ArcGIS and ArcSDE. With a cloud presence, the Java based Geoserver provides remarkable GIS functionality. For data openstreetmap is a free vector street data supported by an international community. The data accuracy is remarkable. TileMill provides free tools to generate MBTiles, using openstreetmap data, for offline mobile basemaps. Frank Warmerdam (now working for Google) has a long history of developing open source geo tools. These include converters to generate shapefiles to WFS, and much more.

WebMapMapSolutions have been building a large mobile map-centric recreation application using only open source technology. The technology has proven very robust; a perfect client solution.

Google, Bing, MapQuest: Non GIS Kings of Content

There are many well known non GIS mapping platfoms available. One needs to be ever more careful about drawing a line between GIS and non-GIS options; as the major providers move their solutions ever closer. But Esri remain the GIS leader; with advanced location based techology. Google, Bing and MapQuest though providing excellent developer tools for building geo and mapping applications, these big guns are the content kings. Google continue to push the envelope when it comes to content; high resolution base maps, streetview are but a tip of the iceberg. Add offline data availability, and you have some very compelling solutions. We still view Google and the like as providing wonderful tools and content for consumer application development, less useful for business focused apps. Don’t agree? Give us your thoughts.

Final Thoughts

The use of open source tools requires the integration and customization of these excellent tools by geo development companies such as ours. In contrast Esri’s AGOL provides a single integrated platform. Meaning much of the hard work is already done, and advances are ongoing from a technical team of high calibre. Development costs for open source are usually higher. But with world wide community contributing to the code, and no long term licensing; costs savings may be realised in the long term. As Esri eye the consumer market and non GIS users, they move ever closer to the Google/Bing core offering. With competition comes innovation. Reinforcing our view that its a great time to be working in the geo-technology world.

Let me know your thoughts. Email me at [email protected]

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