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August 22, 2006 / Steven Pousty

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

  1. Making better software
  2. Not making user learn a new UI for interacting with the web
  3. importing all their IE favorites
  4. 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

  1. 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…
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).



Leave a Comment
  1. geoLibro / Aug 23 2006 5:17 am

    All true. I have spent a lot of time introducing myself to different packages, almost always open source, yet here I am using ESRI software probably 90% of the time. I would really, really like to be using GRASS but it’s prohibitively difficult to get used to (and QGIS is no help, unfortunately). And of course there’s a campus license for ArcGIS already.

    Here’s a twist, though. I am in a position where I don’t need to generate revenue. I am a GIS Librarian, so my charge is to be a support mechanism for students and faculty and a kind of switchboard for on-campus GIS activities and data. So when a graduate student comes in and asks me to teach him how to get county-level data attached to a map there’s no way I’m going to send him to GRASS or uDIG (though I guess in that case QGIS or MapWindow might do). Anyway, if that person is off on their way to learning GIS, guess what they’ll use?

    If ESRI-to-open source is the Windows-to-Linux/Mac, then I can’t help but want to fight that fight (even though, in the end, I do like ArcGIS). But I’m not a computer scientist and don’t care to be one (and students and faculty being introduced to GIS for the first time aren’t likely to be), so I’m sad to say that complex, difficult, and time-consuming software just isn’t going to make any progress through me, either. I know people are working hard on UI issues in GIS, but it’s just not working yet. I won’t be satisfied until I’m running GRASS on a MacBook Pro and it looks and operates like an intuitive Mac app. (Uh, is that so much to ask?)

  2. Jesse / Aug 23 2006 8:00 am

    Great post Steve! I am going through these EXACT SAME mental contortions right now! I, too, would love to be able to make a switch away from the ESRI monopoly, but there aren’t many options for doing that. Manifold looks promising, but I totally agree that they should allow for a 15-30 day trial to check it out. If they did, I’d bet they would attract a lot more converts.

    I also desperately want to store my spatial data in a spatially-enabled RDBMS, and PostGIS/PostGreSQL looks to be a robust open-source solution, but as you mentioned, there’s really no professional / production-level front end to it. I work for a non-profit organization that actually receives a huge discount on ESRI software, but even so, setting up an Oracle/ArcSDE RDBMS platform is extremely resource intensive (we have one DBA trying to support 8 different Oracle/SDE platforms!)

    I’ve been dreaming that ESRI will develop an ArcSDE version that can use PostGreSQL as a back-end, and I’ve heard rumors that a small team of ESRI developers is working on that. Unfortunately I’ve also heard that there several years away from a release.

  3. Dave Bouwman / Aug 23 2006 8:01 am

    Interesting Steve. I come at things from a vastly different perspective – I’m close to 100% billable as a GIS solution developer. We use the ESRI platform for two reasons: there’s a market for customization, and it’s a great plaform to develop on. Yeah it’s complex, sometimes bloated, and not without defects, but it beats the pants of anything else.

    I’m hoping that ArcEngine apps can help to bridge the technology gap – making focused tools easier to use for non-GIS pros, but it takes some innovative developers to cook this up, and while I think it would be very cool to see an open-source community develop around ArcObjects, the fact that ArcObjects has a license will likely turn off any open sourcers. Kinda a self defeating circle there. May explain the slow adoption of Engine…

    As for spatial rdbms that has a good front end – look at the non-versioned geodatabase at 9.2. If you run this on Oracle (w/ spatial), you have what you want – spatial RDBMS, with a great editing and cartographic front end. If you want to stay cheap, run on SQL Express (free). Finally, you get this with ArcInfo, so you don’t need to buy separate ArcSDE unless you have a large user base.



  4. Dylan Beaudette / Aug 23 2006 11:40 am

    A bit on the “funkyness” of GRASS: note that the approach used in GRASS is not at all new, different, or by any means special. Most of the flack directed at it comes from those who do not / will not / can not cope with a command-line based environment. If we have all been in GIS land for so long, why is it that people don’t recall the days of ArcInfo workstation ? That was based on a command-line environment (albeit crappy compared to modern analogues).

    In regards to a lickable-interface for mac os : check out Lorenzo Moretti’s ( GRASS packages: drag-and-drop goodness with Aqua-based graphics. Not a perfect replacement for _all_ of the capabilities of other GIS software- but a good start.

    Getting work done: this is the driving force behind most of us. Things like personal taste and ideology get put on the back burners because of it. Using FOSS for one’s occupation often requires a balance between the above three, which makes software like ArcMap desireable.

    more discussion + more involvement + more interest = faster rate of FOSS GIS development / improvement.

    Thanks for the write-up Steve.


  5. thesteve0 / Aug 23 2006 1:52 pm

    GeoLibro and Jesse: yeah it just makes you all torn up. For me I sometimes end up “stuck” because I can see that I want the stuff on the OS side but I need some more improvements to get buy in from the people who also need to work on the project.

    Dave: Yeah but they didn’t do it for SQL server which is what is behind personal and workgroup editions. You know it is nothing but a big tease. And not only that it is way more complicated than it needs to be for most of my projects.

    Dylan: As someone who cut their teeth on GIS using ArcInfo Workstation on a Sun box back in 1990 I have a fondness for command line applications. But then again I don’t consider myself to be a typical GIS user. But even then they had topologies and a clickable interface for editing. Creating maps and editing are inherintly spatial tasks which benefit from a UI.
    That command line interface was also common way back when, most typical users now expect a UI. And I am glad to see the QGIS/Grass integration. Some more pieces need to fall in place and then count me in the fanboy club.

  6. RAF / Aug 25 2006 10:16 pm

    I’m a long time ESRI user (19-20 years), and I would strongly suggest taking the plunge and getting Manifold, if your serious about a geoprocessing alternative to ESRI. Manifold has its quirks, and it’s cartographic capabilities pale in comparison to ESRI products (except for the redisplay speed with a lot of labeling – Manifold beats ArcMap). At $245 for the Personal Edition, and $575 for the Universal Edition, it’s a steal compared to the cost of ArcEditor or ArcInfo. Actually, it’s a bargain compared to the annual maintenance costs of either one!

    If your a die hard ESRI user, I would recommend getting the video training from:
    The video(s) will get you up and running in no time. I agree that not having a demo version is a big negative, but if you purchase Manifold, get the training video(s), and spend a couple of days learning it, at the very least, you’ll have a very valuable addition to you GIS toolset. If you want to use an RDBMS for your GIS, the Enterprise version or better will do it for you (the Manifold DVD even comes with SQL Express, Oracle XE, and the free version of DB2 which has unlimited file size).

    Manifold’s implementation of spatial SQL is simply amazing! You want to get a list of all parcels within 150 feet of a road? Just write a simple spatial SQL statement and you have your answer – no buffering, no jumping between ArcMap and ArcToolBox, no making new geodatabases or shapefiles, just a simple SQL statement and you have your answer. To me – that IS productivity! An average user with basic data base skills should be able to construct their first usable spatial SQL query (first time Manifold user) in less than 30 min.

    Need to change database properties? No problem, you can change field widths, and/or types with a couple of mouse clicks. Tired of not having length/area attributes (without add-ins)? Manifold has this in every spatial DB (and for points the native X,Y of the coordinate system and the Lat-Long). Need to reverse the direction of a line? Simply select the line and use the flip transform. Need to create polygons from closed lines? Simply select “Bounded Areas” from the transform tool bar and it’s done!

    Maybe you have a length or area attribute in your database that isn’t system derived, but if you split the line or divide the area, you need the attribute to be divided in proportional equivalents to the proportions of the new feature. This can be set up through the database design (NO programming or scripting). Or maybe you routinely get point data in Excel spreadsheets, other databases, ASCII text formats (maybe data gathered by non-GISers who write down the lat/long from a handheld GPS)? Manifold will handle it with ease, even if the data is in DMS and not digital degrees (you can change the formatting of the fields to latitude and longitude and Manifold will convert it to DD). Manifold can dynamically link to Excel Spreadsheets, etc., so if you have someone who uses GPS to get point data and they store and edit the info in an external format, simply link the data as a drawing and anytime the external data is updated – so is the GIS data.

    I could go one like this for quite a while (days?), but I think you should get the picture by now. Do I still use ArcGIS? Yes, but primarily for cartographic production, for other things that are easier for me to do in ArcGIS, and for compatibility with the ESRI dominated world. Bottom line – Manifold is a very capable GIS package that has some extremely powerful and flexible geoprocessing tools. If you’re truly concerned with productivity, Manifold is a must have. But you need to get the training video(s), and spend a little time learning it. You’re investment will quickly pay for it’s self!

  7. tredinertok / Jul 9 2007 8:58 pm


    Very interesting information! Thanks!


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