GIS as We Cross the Millennial Divide

By Nancy Tosta, Tosta Enterprises

Nancy TostaMy limited crystal ball gazing skills indicate that where we goeth with GIS as we cross the millennial divide is probably not too far from where we've cometh fairly recently. GIS has evolved rapidly in just the last few years of its three-decade life span into a complex array of applications and implementations. The lack of digital geospatial data in the first 20 years of GIS life forced the poor early adopters to focus on building large digital geospatial databases to support the use of the software. I suspect that few of us in the Business 20 years ago escaped the joy of digitizing. The software ran on big machines and did some things well, but not many. GIS pretty much came in one main flavor back then--create lots of digital data layers and do map overlays. While this vanilla flavor is still around and represents a critical component of much of the GIS work that's done today, not everyone has to eat vanilla.

About 10 years ago I think we stopped asking the question "What is GIS?" when we realized it comes in many shapes and sizes. For some, GIS means making maps, for others routing, for others environmental analyses, while for still others it's about tracking Business transactions such as building permits. The diversity of flavors has made it possible to apply the tools more appropriately, from low-end aggregation of geocoded statistics at the county level to complex species interactions in decision support systems that use GIS as an interface for specific analyses. I expect that this trend will continue to the point where we won't necessarily think of GIS as a separate application anymore, but simply recognize that managing components of geography is something that our technology tools help us do.

One millennial trend that I'm less optimistic about is the increasing inclination to commodify data. The United States has been one of the lone voices in the world supporting the rights of the public to freely access government data. Most of the rest of the world sees commercial value in government data and attempts to recover costs, charging exorbitant fees for access. Citizens in the United States are at risk of the same morass unless we continue to pay attention to the forces that see data gathering, organization, and coordination as being outside the role of government.

We need to continue to remind ourselves and our leaders of the purpose of data collected and used by government. In most situations, data is collected as a by-product or in support of carrying out the functions of government, such as providing human services, protecting the environment, or fighting crime. Government agencies at all levels interpret data to make decisions and create or change policies. As participants in a democracy, U.S. citizens have the right and responsibility to question and examine these interpretations and hence have a right to freely access government data. As we cross the millennial divide, the move toward creating clearinghouses of data that are outside of government purview and contracting more government data collection to the private sector could result in less access to government data than we currently take for granted. We should pay attention.

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