By Jack Dangermond
The work of GIS professionals is changing our world. You are working on virtually all the big challenges facing society today, from global climate change and managing natural resources to health care, environmental conservation, and making our cities more livable. Among all these efforts, there is a common thread: visualization through mapping has become our universal language. This language is the most effective way to communicate geographic knowledge and is especially useful in helping make our governments transparent, accountable, and engaged with citizens. Geographic knowledge itself is becoming a new kind of infrastructure, driving all the agencies in regions and countries of the world to work together in new ways.
Geography—the scientific foundation of GIS—was for many years concerned with exploring and describing our world. Early explorers led grand expeditions to the poles, to the tops of mountains, to the bottoms of the oceans, the farthest reaches on the globe. Through their explorations, they discovered a new understanding of how the world works, and they came back to share their new understanding with everyone else.
About 50 years ago, a new kind of geography was born—I like to call it computational geography—which opened up our world to new forms of exploration: not just treks to the tops of mountains but research and analysis of the relationships, patterns, and processes of geography. This is leading to a much deeper understanding of how our world works. This new exploration leverages computers, mapping, and geographic science. The early explorers were driven by curiosity, as we saw with Waldo Tobler, David Simonett, and John Borchert. Some, like Roger Tomlinson, Carl Steinitz, and Duane Marble, were more interested in the applications of geographic information. Their work led to the development of a new technology: GIS. GIS has advanced the science of geography itself, implementing systematic measurements, digital data models, quantitative analysis, and modeling—the underpinnings of everything that supports the work of geospatial professionals today.
Much of our world remains unexplored, and there are many geographic problems left to solve—population growth, environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity, climate change, globalization, lack of sustainability, urbanization, health care, poverty, hunger, and more. We still have a long way to go to develop a comprehensive understanding of our world. And we need the participation of everyone—not just government administrators, scientists, and GIS professionals, but everyone deserves a voice in these important issues.
Today, thanks to new Web mapping technologies and visualization, everyone can be an explorer. Everyone now has tools to examine the earth in different ways. Everyone has the potential to discover something new. This democratization of exploration and spatial analysis will lead to a better, more complete, more equitable understanding of our world and open new dimensions in our relationships with each other and our planet.
GIS is already the tool of choice for organizing our geographic knowledge. Professionals have widespread access to this important body of knowledge and leverage it every day to support complex decision making. For the next step in GIS evolution to occur, we must find ways to share this knowledge with everybody else—to integrate this geographic knowledge into everything we do. Building communities—working across disciplines, across geographies, across organizations, and across cultures—is a key aspect of this sharing. Is it really possible to develop a global vision of GIS, leveraging our collective geospatial investments and knowledge, and make GIS available to everyone?
Many forces are currently converging to facilitate the opening of geographic knowledge to everyone. Computing technology continues to evolve, following Moore's Law: The number of transistors on a chip doubles every two years. Machines, networks, and the Internet have become faster, and there has been the recent explosion in the use of mobile devices. Measurement is also increasing with more sensor networks, real-time delivery, and the recent addition of geographically referenced crowdsourced data. GIS software is also evolving in its ability to handle temporal data and provide full 3D support and, therefore, many more new features, all while becoming much easier to use. At the same time, GIS is coevolving with geographic science, increasing our understanding of relationships, patterns, and processes that are now extending into a greater understanding of networks. And perhaps the biggest force of all is the opening of government: open data policies are providing the underpinnings for this information to come together, creating a collective geographic understanding, truly opening our world to everyone.
GIS professionals are playing key roles in making this geographic knowledge available: sharing data and publishing apps and services. They are also developing more collaborative approaches—from connecting to other parts of their organizations to serving citizens with information, using maps as a common language to communicate with and engage everyone in a geographic context.
All these efforts are creating a Web-based, geospatial platform for creating, storing, sharing, and using geographic knowledge, and people will become increasingly dependent on it. When technology is so universally adopted that society becomes highly dependent on it, it can be considered infrastructure. And that's really what we are all building here: a geospatial infrastructure that is the basis for opening geographic knowledge to everyone. GIS has been a very useful tool for more than 40 years, but we are about to discover its true power: the power to transform the way we all live.
To watch videos of the 2010 International User Conference plenary, visit www.esri.com/uc. For more information on ArcGIS 10, visit www.esri.com/arcgis10. We hope to see you in San Diego next year, July 11–15, 2011.