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The Future of GIS – Part 3: The System Becomes a Platform

Feb. 23, 2019
How the GIS landscape has changed and what opportunities lie ahead

If you are just joining us in this series, you might want to start by reading part 1 (In a Relationship) and part 2 (Systems Integration) as they set the stage for this final installment where we will discuss how the historical GIS system has transitioned into a platform.

The GIS landscape has changed over the last couple of years and there are many new and exciting opportunities that can be realized.

Back in part 1, we explored the definition of GIS.

To be clear, the definition has not changed — we are still mapping, analyzing and managing geographic information but we have changed the way we perform these tasks.

Esri uses the following graphic to explain the new platform and how it will drive the future of GIS:

Let us break down the key implications of the platform –

  • Accessible Anywhere: The first major shift is to make our authoritative GIS data available across any device, anywhere our users are working. Historically, GIS data has been available on the desktop via ArcMap and ArcCatalog. We then saw a shift toward web GIS via ArcGIS Server. But this is an entirely new approach — we are making the same data available on your iPhone, your Android tablet, directly via your web browser and even embedded in numerous other third-party apps.

  • Powered by Services: To accomplish the goal of making the data accessible anywhere, we have shifted our publishing methodology to expose our GIS data via geo-enabled web services. This has been a common pattern across all of information technology and GIS has fully embraced the approach. When we are talking about your authoritative GIS data, these will often be secured ArcGIS Server services. But you will also be mashing that data up with online content and additional services hosted by Esri and/or other publishing entities. Bringing this data together via a map is similar to our discussion of relationships in part 1 but now we have many more services available to us that can be overlaid with our back office data. And this drives the value up!

  • Manage & Organize Content: Now that we have made the data accessible anywhere and have enabled our authoritative data via new web services, we need to allow users to find and consume it. We do not want them searching obscure web URLs for our GIS services. So Esri has instead provided the concept of a portal. This portal is a content-management site for our geo-enabled web services as well as web map and web-application content that is meaningful to our user base. The portal provides the technology to manage authenticated users and groups that can then share content with other users or even the general public. The concept of a portal can be handled via either ArcGIS Online (Esri’s hosted portal) or ArcGIS Enterprise, which is essentially an on-premise version of ArcGIS Online for those customers who want to host everything on their own internal network.

These three bullets really make up the core of the Esri platform.

The result is that we have new, unprecedented access to GIS content across an organization.

Many third-party applications now even host extensions that directly consume these web services via a portal login.

Our main example is always Microsoft Office, which allows you to embed maps directly into an Excel spreadsheet. There, you can overlay any Excel data you have that has an address – X/Y, latitude/longitude, etc. – on top of any of your hosted facility or land data.

You can then save and share that new map product back out to your organization with just a few clicks.

Many other apps have followed suit, including IBM Cognos, SharePoint, SAP, Salesforce, Microsoft Dynamics and many others…

The end game of all this is to make mapping and GIS in general available to everyone in our organization.

Traditionally, the GIS department may have handled the creation of most mapping and reporting surrounding the GIS. However, with these new tools, every user in a utility or telecom can find and embrace new native use cases for GIS.

Some GIS professionals have been resistant to this enablement of the end users because they see it as diminishing the importance of the GIS department.

But I truly believe it is just changing the focus of the GIS department to becoming geospatial authors and facilitators as opposed to map makers.

Once you have implemented this technology, you will never go back.

The unleashed potential will drive GIS to new heights within your organization that were previously unreachable.

This concept of GIS everywhere can, however, be a bit daunting to traditional GIS departments.

Many utilities and telecoms struggle with taking their first steps with the new platform and that is where SSP has been able to help the most.

I always encourage customers to focus on two distinct questions when looking at the new platform:

How can you expose new data within the utility/telecom while leveraging your existing investment in GIS?The first, easy step is to get your data exposed via web services and brokered out through ArcGIS Online or ArcGIS Enterprise. This will allow it to be consumed by all out-of-the-box Esri apps. Need a slick web GIS viewer? You have got it instantaneously. Never had your GIS data available on your phone? Now you do. Those are very quick wins for every organization. And to accomplish it, we are going to use every aspect of the GIS you have invested all the time, energy and money into over the last several years.
But then start to think about all the other databases, spreadsheets, and systems of record within your organization. We talked about many of those system integration points in part 2 of this series but the platform opens up many new options. An Esri portal will allow you and your users to expose that data via a map with little to no work! Take it upon yourself to lead an exercise within your company to try and list out some of the data points that are managed by departments across the organization. Almost every one of them can be related to a map… And that means new GIS users (which usually equates to new GIS fans). Help them understand how they can use GIS to drive their decisions and workflows!How can you collect and empower new data points throughout your organization?We have been talking about using ArcGIS Online or ArcGIS Enterprise to collect new data points for years now. Many utilities are already collecting meters, inspectors, streetlight outages directly from customers, and more.The point is that the Esri platform makes it easier than ever to collect new data into your back-office GIS and this includes spatial location, attributes and even attachments (pictures/docs). But please do not stop there! Find a way to empower those new data points. Use them to change the way your users do business.
This is often accomplished via geo-processing, some new systems integration, a new report or injecting automation into your workflow. If you tie the collection of new data points to impact on your business or workflow challenges, you will be successful each and every time.

The opportunities for platform enablement are exponentially increased by Esri’s out-of-the-box applications.

Esri has built many applications that are all natively tied to ArcGIS Online or ArcGIS Enterprise.

This means you can log into any of their apps using your organizational account and have access to all the same map products across the board.

These include Collector for ArcGIS, Explorer for ArcGIS,  Survey123, the Operations Dashboard, and do not forget ArcMap, ArcGIS Pro, and of course your plain old web browser.

The beauty of this is that Esri releases updates to these apps just about every quarter and the updates are as simple as downloading the new app to your device.

Is it really that easy? Aren’t upgrades always painful?

The answer goes back to the fact that we have enabled our GIS via web services.

All these apps consume geo-data via web services and that protocol allows Esri to easily upgrade, enhance and release new versions of the applications without direct ties to the underlying data.

On a side note, this is a fantastic example of a Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) if you want to impress your spouse or kids… Okay, that might be a stretch but it is still a pretty nifty approach and that is why it works so well.

To wrap this all up, the GIS as a system is headed out and GIS as a platform is in — the future of GIS is now.

And the quicker you embrace the new platform, the faster you will begin reaping the rewards it has to offer.

The best part is that platform-enablement efforts are usually quick, affordable projects.

This is not a six-month endeavor! I usually recommend that customers choose one or two patterns for enabling their GIS via the platform and then we get busy.

Once we have the technology up and running, our goal is to train you on how those patterns are implemented to allow you to handle the next 100 requests that come from your organization.

And that is why you will always hear me preaching the “pattern”:

  • Expose new data to the utility/telecom

  • Collect new data from the utility/telecom

  • Empower your operations via that data

So get on the bandwagon and explore how the platform will take you into the future of your GIS!

 In the next, and final, installment of my Future of GIS series, I will dive into the evolution of the Esri GIS technology into the new Utility Network Management Extension (utility network). This technology aligns directly with the Esri platform and will provide the foundation for the next 20 years of geospatial utility network management.

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