Insularity and Progress
My 20 years in IT and GIS range from general IT on
mainframes to GIS consulting in business and academia to
GIS Manager at a large Australian company. The thread
linking these experiences for me is how important
databases are in data management. When I entered GIS, we
lacked generic database products for managing spatial
data. Databases 101 taught me the values databases bring
to IS management: first, the model, embodied in the
catalogs at the heart of commercial databases; second, the
logical separation of application from implementation. We
had to wait until the 1990s for databases to deliver these
accessibly and affordably, via object-relational products
like Oracle Spatial, Informix IDS, and PostGIS.
Unfortunately, uptake of these products within GIS
has been slow. I want to suggest a possible non-financial
reason for this.
Sometimes I think I must have two heads. In
building an enterprise-class, flexible, stable, open,
extensible, and cost-effective GIS infrastructure for my
company, I chose a commercial database in preference to
“enterprise” products from a large player in GIS. When
I try to explain why to my peers, I use arguments drawn
from my computing science training, promoting management
principles informed by good theory and proven in practice.
Most of my peers walk away unconvinced. This may be
because I don’t use lucid, digestible arguments that
draw on my peers’ experience. Or it may be because of
something my colleagues share with the many students I
have lectured and mentored a problem endemic enough in GIS
to warrant this Soapbox.
I have been concerned awhile that some higher
education institutions unintentionally promote the notion
that “GIS = skill with vendors’ products.” Now, I do
not contest the quality of these products, or the motives
of vendors in gifting institutions with their software.
But the consequence is that when it comes time to
implement geographically aware solutions, the learned
assumption is: if it is geographic, you must use a GIS;
or, worse, you must use a GIS from vendor x.
I often think the fascination of GIS vendors with
physical file formats harks back to the pre-database
computing of the 1960s: so many seem to subscribe to a
version of the old adage “nobody ever got fired for
buying IBM.” The only thing that’s changed is the
Is our industry too insular? Pontifications about
“how special Geographic Information is” might be good
for morale, but hardly for sound decision-making. Is our
professional education too insular? Are we so familiar
with a few vendors’ products that we won’t step
outside the comfort zone to investigate
The answers are not simple, but surely one of our
problems is an industry Zeitgeist that fosters a “cradle
to grave” approach to software acquisition. Thus,
organizations invest their key GIS infrastructure in
single-vendor stovepipe products. While this investment
makes life easy for GIS managers, it makes it hard to
convince them of the value of non-traditional products
like databases. Truth is, such “safe” investments make
information systems restrictive, inflexible, and costly.
They also delay the uptake and development of computing
technologies that lie at the heart of the latest “open
Our industry’s response to this revolution has
been to convince itself that the latest incarnation of
this or that GIS will work in an open computing
environment. Father knows best: the familiar products
really can offer choice in developing fully spatial IS.
I beg to differ.
About the Author
Simon Greener BSurv (Hons), GradDipCompSci, AIPM,
is GIS Manager of a large Australia company based in
Tasmania, Australia. He has 20 years experience in general
IT and GIS computing with specific emphasis on systems
architecture and data management.