Monday, 14 December 2009

Enterprise GIS is not a Package

It seems that some organisations continue to regard GIS as a commodity application package: something that can purchased, plugged in, and voila - GIS for the business.  I started thinking about how these organisations may have come to adopt this view.

Perhaps there are 3 broad views of GIS:
  • Desktop application
  • Standalone system
  • Enterprise capability
Looking back, GIS has traditionally been provided by 'fat client' desktop applications such as MapInfo, ArcGIS, GeoMedia, Manifold, gvSIG, etc. (there is a nice list of GIS software on Wikipedia).  These applications have in general been geared towards the use of proprietary file based formats such as shp, tab, e00, dwg, etc.  As GIS grew from project based applications to departmental systems, they evolved to employ multi-user databases for storage, but still maintained the two-tier, fat-client architecture.  GIS vendors marketed their GIS Systems as replacements to the drawing office paper and mylar maps i.e. as standalone, seamless map repositories.

I think those original standalone GIS systems can be thought of as the first beasties that crawled out of the sea and into a new world of land and air.  They took the first step from paper to the digital world - but that was just the beginning.  The data has evolved to take advantage of its new surroundings; we realised that we have many other datasets that could be indexed geographically, and many other areas of the business that could benefit from the power of spatial technologies to integrate, analyse and visualise data.  GIS was no longer just the digital drawing office, it provided capabilities that were sought after across the whole organisation.

This evolution has been driven by a desire to speed up business workflows, enhance services, reduce costs and improve decision making.  These drivers have required that location should be captured and used during every task in a workflow where it helps - and that turns out to be pretty much everywhere.With this realisation it is clear that GIS is no longer a standalone system - it is a set of enterprise-wide capabilities that need to be accessible to all business systems.

I was rather puzzled recently when a UK Police force went to the market for a 'GIS System'.  In talking with the procurement officer, he appeared to regard this as any other commodity purchase; something that could be acquired and plugged in within 30 days to replace their existing GIS - software vendors only need apply.  Well good luck to them.  You can easily imagine how central to police operations geography is (CBS's TV show 'The District' featured GIS scenarios prominently). Buying a standalone GIS is not going to provide them with the benefits that they will want and expect, but until organisations evolve their definition of GIS then I guess some procurement folks are going to struggle to buy what is really needed.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Enterprise Architecture and GIS

Enterprise Architecture is a continuous practice of aligning the resources of a business with the objectives of that business.  At a broad level Enterprise Architecture considers:
  • Business Architecture
    Commercial model, process model, organisation mode
  • Technology Architecture
    Application mode, infrastructure model
  • Data Architecture
    Data models, information products
GIS is very much relevant to Enterprise Architecture because it can both enable and hinder each of these tiers.  Business processes have traditionally needed to work around limitations imposed by GIS technologies because the transfer of spatial data between systems, departments, and hence successive steps in a workflow have been so problematic.  This has been caused primarily by limitations within the technology and data tiers. 

The concept of a 'GIS System' is starting to evaporate as spatial facilities emerge within other components.  Databases (e.g. Oracle, SQL Server, MySQL, Postgis) and data formats (e.g. GML, GeoPDF) are rapidly maturing and are available for use by a much wider community than the traditional 'hard core GISers' and thus we are starting to see components of the IT stack become spatially-aware.  This is the natural evolutionary path for GIS and is the model that we should be designing for.  As these technologies mature I think  it is important that the Enterprise Architects and IT Architects are aware of the current and emerging opportunities, and limitations, afforded by spatial technologies.   

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

AGI 2009 Geocommunity Conference - Mainstream? Not yet.

A good AGI GeoCommunity conference for sure with some thought provoking presentations.  There were lots of familar faces and it was good to catch up over a beer or two.  I was wondering who would be there this year and what the community would consider the burning questions of the age to be...

It wasn't as I had expected.  Steven Feldman, the conference chair, opened the first day with a solid introduction, explaining that the central theme would be 'What' people are doing with GIS, and hoping that over the next year we would be considering more 'Why' questions.  This year's conference would not really consider the 'How' as GIS has now merged with the mainstream, and so presumably then, implementation problems are a thing of the past.  At least that is how I heard it and I must admit that this sentiment does not ring true to me. Not yet.

In my own travels as a Geospatial Solution Architect I haven't noticed GIS implementation challenges lessen very much - sure some of the standards are beginning to take hold but the problem areas of real multi-user concurrent data editing, application interoperability, data integration, data licensing, and GIS within enterprise architecture are still very much significant challenges.  I would have loved to see an implementation stream cover progress in these areas.

The conference was not organised along the lines of the AGI Special Interest Groups which perhaps in itself indicates that we may need to review the topic areas and roles of the SIGs to ensure that they remain relevant to the community. As someone that feels that technical developments are of great interest I enjoyed the Geoweb stream which addressed some relevant (or potentially relevant) technical developments, principally in the area of mashups.  I would love to hear more about developments in data storage, server based services (and issues of scalability and availability), systems and data integration - technical issues relevant to enterprise deployment of GIS capabilities.

The AGI Northern Group has organised a follow up conference (Where2.0Now?) in Harrogate on 10th November on the subject of Web2.0 and disruptive technologies.  The AGI Technical SIG is also in the process of organising a conference for early next year on the subject of Mobile GIS.  I look forward to both of these events and to hear more of the technical developments effecting our industry.

GIS as a member of the mainstream?  Based upon the content and attendance of this conference we can't possibly argue that GIS is mainstream yet.  Sure, many more people use spatial data and technologies daily in the form of SatNav and online web maps but the IT mainstream was not at the conference.  There were no stands from the mainstream IT players such as IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, FileNet, Google, Informatica, Accenture, Logica, Dell, Sun, Embarcodero, Adobe, etc, etc. in the small exhibit hall.  When we start to see these vendors and integrators showing up in numbers then we will know that GIS has arrived.  I am not so sure what we will all do after that though!

Thanks to the conference organizers.