People Love Maps!

Joyce Edson, Deputy CIO and AGM, City of Los Angeles
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Throughout history, from cave paintings to Galileo and Columbus to the paper map books many of us baby boomers had in our cars, to modern geographic information systems (GIS), humans have an undeniable and insatiable love for maps. And love is a powerful thing.

Maps cater to two of the most common and basic ways people absorb information:  visual and physical. Our brains process, understand, engage and can act faster when information is presented to us visually. When data is vast or territory is unknown such as navigating our world or the Southern California freeway system, it can be presented in a way that allows us to “hold” this information in our hands, the affinity for maps is inevitable.

The partnership between technology and maps through GIS, is truly one for the ages. The ability to interactively manipulate data into a context that creates relevance is life changing.  Nearly every purchase, service or transaction made electronically, that has any location data, also has the ability to enhance their service via a GIS interface. It has become a function that isn’t just competitive advantage, it’s a competitive necessity. Businesses, that participate in location based search/rating systems, like Yelp, Foursquare, Angie’s List, even the YP (Yellow Pages) are able to capitalize on Internet “foot traffic” by harvesting GPS data. Many business add GIS based services as convenience features to attract and retain customers. By putting ‘us’ as the “center of the universe”, modern GIS versions of maps, takes an affection and turns it into a love for all time.

Confirmation of the importance of GIS in today’s world can be seen through the 2,430,000,000 returns for a Google search on the word “maps”, as well as a search in the Android Play Store that returns 258 separate map apps, and that’s just in the Popular Results category. There are even more map apps that specialize in navigation, weather, transit, maps in games, maps for hiking, maps of the sky, connectivity coverage maps, and more. And this popularity is assuredly doubled with additional map apps that are Apple iOS based. This is true love and true power.

 ‚ÄčThe partnership between technology and maps through GIS, is truly one for the ages. The ability to interactively manipulate data into a context that creates relevance is life changing 

GIS mapping is now embedded into almost every facet of our lives. As a decision-making tool, we don’t often ‘blink an eye’ when an app asks us if we want to share our location. After all, these apps tell us how to avoid a traffic jam, save precious minutes in our day, where the best restaurants are, where we should live, and even where family members are at any given moment.  Maps take a glut of data and translate it specifically for us. Helping us navigate through a world of complexity.

So what’s the future for this love affair? The most obvious answer is GIS will continue to become more and more ubiquitous, integrated and relied upon. GIS capabilities will continue to be a part of every platform and data source that we’re able to put a location to, and because of this, we will all eventually become GIS contributors in some way.  This last part is a very important point.  In this day of personal privacy concerns and fears of governmental monitoring, how do we continue to grow as a technology, reaping the benefits of GIS, when essential to the process involves capturing data that is specific to an individual and individual privacy?  An ethical challenge to our love affair.

Today, individuals are providing crowdsourced location-specific knowledge, and this data is very valuable. Crowdsourced information is an accurate source of GIS data, and since the contributor is a willing participant, there are few ethical concerns. However, other individually contributed GIS data, which is amazingly accurate, because it’s harvested electronically via GPS sensors on smartphones, wearable devices, sensor readers in buildings, etc., is not always obtained from a fully willing participant. While the intent is pure - to have GIS apps consume data in real-time to provide the services we need-it also creates “1984” Orwell, big-brother possibilities.  Do the benefits outweigh the risks? So for the GIS systems of the future, and to use a phrase from a popular movie, “With great power comes great responsibility”; an issue that will need to be addressed with every GIS advancement made.

And GIS technology is expanding in capability, potential benefits and dimension. Future GIS offerings will be commonly presented not only in 2D street maps illustrating how to find a building on a street, but in 3D and how to find an office or even person within the building.  Imagine the applications of this for public safety and search and rescue. A fire company or police unit will not only be provided the quickest route to an incident, but will also be able to track and improve search and rescue operations with enhanced capabilities for finding individuals within a building.  Imagine the consumer application to this, no longer will there be announcements of, “We have a lost child in the store”, as every person, place or thing, will be able to be “plotted” and “tracked”.

As we increase our use of data analytics, combining these skills with GIS, the element of predictive GIS or 4D predictive visualization is a real possibility, and something that is already being tried with sensors and the effect of time, transportation patterns, activities and events to reduce traffic fatalities. Other uses involve the effects of natural disasters - storm paths and earthquake shake maps on building construction and resilience.

As the world continues as an increasingly large and complex place to live, GIS and maps will continue to help by presenting the world into a context relative and relatable visualization. There will be issues and concerns about scientific and technologic ethics, in GIS and technology that GIS leverages. But as long as humans crave the need to understand where they are in their environment, be it their neighborhood, their city, country, world or even the universe, we will always love maps.

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