Broader Consumption of GIS with Cloud Computing

Cliff Plank, National Director, GIS and Mapping|U.S., Colliers International
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Cliff Plank, National Director, GIS and Mapping|U.S., Colliers International

Misperceptions Create Challenges in Cloud

Indeed, there has been a lot of buzz around cloud computing for some time now. I updated my corporate buzzword bingo card with it years ago. And while there are certainly numerous software and platform service applications that are well suited and effectively utilized in business environments, cloud computing faces challenges from over inflated expectations and misperceptions about the capabilities and risks involved. I think this is especially true when it comes to GIS, and probably will be for a longer duration than other cloud related technologies.

"The nature of cloud computing eases the challenge of spatial data/functionality access and enables a much wider audience to be consumers of it on demand"

Why should Big Money be invested in GIS Platforms?

GIS has always faced challenges being understood, adopted and implemented. There’s a vast delta between the power user GIS/geography geeks of the world and everyone else when it comes to understanding the capabilities, costs, and benefits of everything spatial. Most people think dots on a map when they think of GIS. While the days when many people believe Google Earth shows you real time imagery are probably long behind us, many people perceive Google Earth to be a GIS system. And, for the budget butchers trimming the fat from various departments in an organization, why should big money be invested in spatial data, GIS platforms, or even GIS related cloud services when Google Earth and Maps are free; and heck there’s even a free API for you to use to build the GIS of your dreams, right.

Potential in Spatial Data and Visualization

Despite the overall disappointing adoption rate and general underutilization of GIS as a business intelligence resource; Google Maps/Earth, Bing Maps, and others have at least raised awareness that maps are useful tools and revealed even greater potential that exists with spatial data, visualization, and analysis. Vendor halls at trade shows and conferences, especially real estate ones, are packed with companies selling map centric software and data meant for the masses not the GIS Specialist. While some of these applications or subscriptions are very useful tools, they are largely a black box solution, with a limited set of functionality, targeting a specific niche user who needs access to particular sets of data. For an organization like Colliers, with numerous service lines, working with various property types and clients in many different industries, this results in an unwieldy array of potential software solutions and data sources rather than a comprehensive solution. This has been a key challenge for organizations trying to implement and maintain spatial data and GIS solutions.

Flexibility in Data Delivery via the Cloud

Cloud computing, SaaS, and PaaS are well suited to alleviate that problem, and lead to more consistent and comprehensive solutions for diverse organizations. Data and services delivery via the cloud can be much more flexible and versatile than more static desktop software, and more able to support a wide range of functionality and data needs. In addition to a robust desktop GIS platform and associated deliverables, Colliers implements various spatial web services incorporated within internal applications for things like geocoding, drive time generation, and demographic data retrieval; and I certainly think this will expand dramatically in the future. The nature of cloud computing eases the challenge of spatial data/functionality access and enables a much wider audience to be consumers of it on demand.

A Hybrid Cloud for Businesses of the Future

I think cloud computing generally is beginning to leave the “Trough of Disillusionment” of the Gartner Hype Cycle. There are even many useful examples in the location based realm. I don’t think however that full GIS as a service is there yet— it’s more on the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” part of the curve. For the power user it’s going to be a Big Data problem and full GIS functionality problem. GIS as a service need to data abilities, robust functionality, and analytical capability of the traditional desktop systems—which will be a heavy lift. Then of course there are also concerns about data security and privacy. Even if these concerns are misguided, there’s a lot of convincing that needs to be done for an organization to move sensitive data, data models, secret sauce, etc…to the cloud.

Ultimately I think GIS based business environments of the future will be a hybrid cloud—with a combination of public cloud resources and private cloud infrastructure within the organization, along with some traditional desktop GIS and consulting. Of course the ability to develop an internal cloud versus dependence more exclusively on public cloud computing will depend on the size of the company, and the ability to afford and dedicate the resources to its development. Internal company cloud platforms, applications, and services will provide the end user, in our case brokers and their clients, with the data versatility, integration, and accessibility that cloud computing affords; while also not lifting the company’s kimono exposing any closely guarded secrets. Additionally, a private cloud enables the company to build a wide range of customized, targeted applications ranging from simple data delivery to interactive presentation tools to more robust modeling engines; that will be well suited to the specific needs of the end users. These private clouds would be enhanced by a large and growing set of public cloud services and data that would be integrated into them.

GIS Analytical Tool not for Everyman

Cloud computing—whether public, private, hybrid—will most certainly lead to a greater awareness and broader consumption of GIS. That seems like a patently obvious truth. I remain a bit skeptical that it will create deeper understanding and more sophisticated utilization of GIS as a business intelligence and analytical tool for the contemporary everyman. After all, I can tell that my teenager isn’t having a party because there aren’t any cars parked outside my house right now in Google Earth.

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