Moving from Traditional GIS to Web GIS

by | Dec 18, 2013

By Jack Dangermond, founder and president of Esri (, Redlands, Calif.

Today, our world is facing serious challenges on many fronts. It's becoming clear we need to collectively work to create a better future. This means leveraging our best design talent, as well as our best technology and science, to create a more sustainable future. Geographic information system (GIS) technology provides the platform for doing this.

Examining the Power of GIS

The work of GIS professionals is creating many information products that are directly changing our physical world. Their work also changes how we see, understand and interact with our world.

GIS is built on the science of geography and, as such, it provides an integrative and comprehensive framework that cuts across many disciplines and organizations. GIS also has the power of qualitative analytics blended with easy-to-comprehend geospatial visualization.

By integrating geographic science into everything we do, GIS improves how we measure and analyze things as well as how we predict the future. It also provides better ways to plan, design and make decisions. The success of the GIS community is creating tens of thousands of important systems around the world that validate the huge contributions our field is making.

For all these reasons, GIS is a promising technology for addressing issues at a larger scale”a global scale”in the world. To do this, we clearly need to also dramatically scale up its application and make it pervasive.

Scaling Up

By scaling up, I mean we need to dramatically grow the application of GIS, leveraging the current community of users. We need to make it pervasive throughout organizations and across society.

Is this possible? My sense, as well as personal experience with other pervasive technologies such as the Internet and the Global Positioning System (GPS), is that this scaling up is both possible and in some ways inevitable. GPS, for example, has been radically simplified, and this in turn has rapidly transformed human beings' sense of place. Together with consumer Web mapping, we can now see both our whole planet and where we are at any time.

GIS will become pervasive in the same way, leveraging the connectivity of the Web and cloud computing. The result will be better decisions that reflect better understanding and ultimately a more sustainable future.

This next step in the evolution of GIS involves a new technology pattern”web GIS. Web GIS takes advantage of the latest trends, including Web and cloud technologies, big data, faster machines and pervasive devices. Web GIS also directly models and integrates all the geospatial data types”remote sensing, GPS, the sensor web, 3-D data, crowdsourcing data, real-time data and pervasive Web content.

The emerging platform is easy to use, more open, accessible and collaborative. It uses focused apps for making maps, performing analytics and accessing a rich, living library of shared maps and geographic data.

Web GIS Integrates Any Data

One of the key concepts of Web GIS is how it organizes content. Web GIS models all types of information as Web maps and Web services. These Web maps can represent typical geospatial data types”maps and imagery as well as tabular data, such as geodatabases, spreadsheets and enterprise databases. It also integrates social media and sensor networks with real-time information and the whole world of big data.

GIS is all about data integration. Web GIS also provides new patterns for involving information sharing and collaboration, Web maps and services, and visually and analytically combining geospatial data.

Another intriguing aspect of Web GIS is that it can help break down the fundamental barriers that separate organizations. Whether the silos are professional or organizational, the ability of the Web GIS environment to fluidly integrate different disciplines and activities gives us a new framework for collaboration.

Web GIS has one other interesting ingredient: It can help us easily organize our work. Web GIS provides content management capabilities for all your maps, apps and models, plus it simplifies sharing these within a group or across departments and organizations.

Driving the Transformation

Although Web GIS is just starting, it is already proving to be an attractive platform that is helping us scale up and leverage the work and knowledge of GIS professionals. For GIS professionals, understanding this pattern and its underlying technology is important. Embracing these patterns will leverage existing investments and drive geospatial adoption across organizations. Ultimately, this pattern promises to make huge contributions to our understanding of the world around us.


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