The GIS user is stuck in the middle
Andrew H has a great post talking about why people should keep their geospatial data in a spatially enabled database (such as Oracle Spatial or PostGIS). And Dylan talks about the functionality of PostGIS in my comments. And I was intrigued by the ideas presented. Heck I was intrigued by uDIG as I was getting ready to leave ESRI. What fun to write in Java and work on geospatial technology and open source to boot. So I have dabbled some reading the doc, using some of the software, cruising the discussion forums and my conclusion is that there is serious work that needs to be done before this would be ready for a shop like ours. And by a shop like ours I mean one that has 5-6 GIS folks without a lot of programming time who need to be doing work that directly generates revenue.
Sometimes in this discussion I am going to talk about spatially enabled geodbs, but I am also going to talk about the usefulness of the OS geospatial stuff to me and some of the people I work with. So sometimes what I say will apply to Oracle spatial and other times it will be more about open source, please keep that in mind.
First on the spatially enabled RDBMs – you guys are never going to get anywhere in small shop land without a good front end. We do a lot of editing and map production – without a high powered front end you are of no use to me. I don’t want one data format for my editing and map production and then export for storage. The front end has to give me high quality map production so I can produce figures for my reports and it better be easy – ArcPLOT sucked so don’t try to tell me I should go back there. Good topologies need to be in there right out of the box – I am done with slivers and gaps. For serious GIS users these are two basic requirements. If you gave me this I would struggle through the command line and the other funkiness of GRASS for my habitat models.I know QGIS and uDIG are supposed to be that UI, but they are not and until they are I am done looking at PostGIS. As for Oracle spatial – I am not even sure what UI I should use. If Manifold wants to be that alternate UI they better start thinking about giving away free demos. $250 or whatever they charge for the full version is cheap but I am not going to spend that just to see if I want to use the software. Everybody is giving out free trials with a time bomb – c’mon, fish or cut bait. Their current model means I need manager approval to just try out the software – unlikely. But it must be fun to be the manifold folks where you can say things like:
Faster, Smarter and more Capable than ESRI ArcView, ArcGIS 8 or MapInfo Professional …
Don’t get stuck using antique, “toy” GIS packages when you need serious combinations of raster and vector layers.
And here is the bigger dilema I see for the OS folks…
They are fighting against people already being familiar with ArcGIS – which is very similary to Linux fighting against Windows. If you want people to switch you need to make the transition as painless as possible. Firefox got people to switch to IE by
- Making better software
- Not making user learn a new UI for interacting with the web
- importing all their IE favorites
- THEN building in cool new features that keep people around
GIS users spent A LOT of time learning how to do things the ESRI way – and whether that is the right or wrong way is immaterial. Time AND money is precious and it takes both to switch to new software, especially when it requires new ways of doing things.
Here are some areas for you to focus on to make people think about switching
- Make things simpler – go with a UI geared towards very specific tasks. So even if it’s not the way I am used to doing things, if it is much simpler then thats where I am going. If I had a GIS viewer application that put vectors on top of raster and also allowed me to intersect/buffer and calculate area I would have something that I could give to my non-GIS folks to do some of the more routine work we do. The UI should be like Word or Excell since that is what most people know. In this arena I think I can point to Google Earth as a good example…
- To go for the GIS pros make most of the usual tasks very similar to the way things are done in ArcGIS. You have 20-30 minutes of me dinking around with the software before I chuck it or keep it or at least suck me into playing around for 20 more minutes and so on and so on. Not everything has to follow ArcGIS convention but some of the more common tasks need to have a way to do things that makes sense to an ArcMap user. Again you need to, at the very least have good editing tools and good map production tools. One of the big things people were talking about from both this year and lasts years UC is the new cartographic representation because a lot of people make maps for a good chunk of their work week.
- For both of these points read the creating passionate users blog – one of the best on the net. Particularly good posts are Featuritis (which a rather well know GIS software vendor is know for) and Attenuation and the graph seems to be gone in here original post but google images found it here
Let me try to sum up:
- I like OS software in general – I used it all the time and have contributed to the doc and filed bugs for some of the projects, and even helped a tiny amount with an OS GIS project (look for TheSteveMonkey) (there is more but I am feeling lazy tonight). I would love to see a strong OS solution in the GIS space that helped me do what I need to do. I resent the fact the ESRI is the only software I have to use which prevents me from running a Linux or Mac machine.
- Most GIS users just want to get work done – they may even be sympathetic to the idea of OS software – but at the end of the day they want to go do other things and they want their paycheck. Don’t expect big contributions in either time or money unless you can sell them something worth more than what they already have. And don’t forget to include the cost of learning new tech and time spent migrating data.
- There is a huge institutional investment in ESRI technology and you don’t swtich people by making the switch hard. You need to give them easy ways to switch which still allow them to do what they need to do.
- Most of my statements apply to me and what I see as the “smaller” GIS shops. Some of the issues I talk about here may not be an issue for the larger GIS shops or those not in a cost-recovery/billable time arena.
I would love to hear other peoples thoughts on some of the ideas I have laid out here. For now, as much as I would like to go to a spatially enabled RDBMs, rather than an a object-relational spatial data engine, there are too many barriers in the way to make it practical for work. And for that reason I feel like a GIS user stuck in the middle. I want to use a storage technology that makes sense with the work I do (a spatially enabled RDBMs) with a front end that makes working with that technology easy and efficient (ArcMap).