5 Trends in GIS and How to Successfully Navigate Them

05-01-2022 08:47 AM
Esri Frequent Contributor
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The advent of 3D analytics, the integration of interior and exterior space mapping, real time and big data analytics, enterprise and web GIS, and artificial intelligence and machine learning are 5 trends that are rapidly transforming the landscape of GIS.  How can you successfully navigate through these trends, learning about them and weaving them into your own career journey?  This essay presents the trends and strategies on how you can do just that. 


1.  3D Analysis.  For many years, GIS offered the possibility of visualizing one's data in 3D, or at least, attempt to do this in 2 1/2 dimensions.  But it makes more sense, given the 3D world we live in, to be able to do 3D analysis, and not just visualizations.  With the advent and expansion of tools such as the 3D tools in ArcGIS Pro, you can analyze our 3D world.  And don't limit yourself to analyzing the terrain in 3D, but consider modeling other data in 3D, such as population, water quality, biodiversity, crime, and more.  Don't just do it because you can, do 3D analysis if it adds value to your understanding.  And also consider that analyzing data over time adds the ability to do 4D analysis.  

2.  Integrate BIM, CAD, and GIS.   Another exciting trend in GIS has been the joining of this community with the Building Information Modeling (BIM) and Computer Aided Drafting and Design (CAD) community.  For years, these two communities were mapping interior spaces (BIM and CAD) and exterior spaces (GIS), side-by-side, acknowledging each others' importance but not being able to well-integrate each others' work.  With the advent of tools such as City Engine, ArcGIS Urban, and ArcGIS Indoors, you can create databases and workflows that incorporate interior and exterior maps, plans, and proposals.  Why does this matter?  Consider constructing a resiliency plan for a community or for a university campus in the event of an issue of a natural hazard, health, or other emergency.  For that resiliency plan to work, that plan needs to include the built environment (including all the emergency shelters, infrastructure (water, electricity, fiber optic, and so on), exits, and so on), and the exterior spaces.  

3.  Enterprise and Web GIS.   The advent of GIS as a web based platform has changed nearly everything about GIS:  In the past with desktop-only GIS, we never had enough computer memory or storage space, data was difficult to obtain and to use, and the user community was small and specialized.  Web GIS has increased our ability to share methods, communicate research results, access and serve data, create our own data, and involve the community to plan its own future.  In so doing, GIS has rapidly evolved from a system of records to a system of engagement.  The increased engagement is within the GIS community itself as well as with outside stakeholders, including the general public. 

By enterprise GIS I am referring to the expansion of skilled GIS staff in an organization from a few specialists not too many years ago to today's wider diversity of and greater number of staff who know how to use GIS.  Not all will be experts in GIS, but GIS will be one of their tools on their daily or weekly toolbelt that they use.  This has big implications--because our 21st Century world's complex problems are multi-disciplinary, the widening of people knowldgeable about GIS will enable us to better understand our complex world and make smarter decisions in that world.  

4.  Real-time and big data and analytics.   One result of Web GIS is the ability of GIS to ingest real-time data feeds from the IoT, including stream gauges, wildfire perimeters, traffic, health bulletins, and the 7.5-billion strong citizen science community of humans.  Many of these data feeds are truly "big data" - such as electricity demands on a large power grid, and the system of locks, pumps, and dams in the Netherlands, for example.  Coupled with this is the increased valuing of data as a societal benefit, the advent of data as a service, and the advent of open data portals including ArcGIS Hubs. The Internet of Things (IoT) feeds and sensors are increasingly tied to real-world coordinates, and thus are able to be mapped and analyzed.  This is enabling what Esri CEO Jack Dangermond refers to as GIS becoming the "nervous system of the planet", helping us to monitor its health, and also correct trends that need correcting. 

5.  Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.  Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) make sense out of noisy and messy data, helping people find patterns that they may not know existed.   AI and ML helps, for example, people find natural clusters based on spatial distribution and attribute similarities, classify a large amount of remotely sensed data, and bringing together data from different sources, formats, and scales to train powerful spatial prediction models.  Remember that GIS is not just to understand the world as it is, but to predict the future, and to build a better, more resilient, more sustainable world.  Hence, AI and ML have enormous implications for the day-to-day work that GIS professionals will do, where the focus will be on managing and understanding data, rather than gathering and processing data.  It will also mean that ethical decisions will need to be made regarding how and why data will be used and applied.

Learning about these 5 trends.  As a Young GIS professional, you're probably already keenly aware that your time is limited.  Each of the above trends is wide-reaching, and deep immersion into any of them will require time and effort.  Part of being successful in GIS is taking some deep dives into aspects that are of particular interest to you and developing expertise there.  But I encourage you to keep the above trends at least in fairly close range, becoming familiar with how they are changing GIS and learning more about them.  How can you do this? 

A key way of learning more is something you are already doing--your involvement in YPN.  I salute you for your engagement here.  Connecting and regular interaction with the community will bring lifelong professional and even personal benefits.   Another thing will be for you to take the attitude of a lifelong learner and regularly take courses including those from universities and technical colleges, at Esri, and elsewhere, lessons such as from Esri Press books, the Learn library, and Esri training, regular webinars, and Esri and other videos.  You don't have time to take every course or lesson, so regularly consider your goals and choose carefully. 

You can also learn about these 5 trends by digging into each topic.  In 3D analysis tools for example, see some product pages such as these for ArcGIS Urban.  In AI and ML for example, begin with this story map and follow it with the spatial analysis and data science pages.  The ethical implications of these trends can be understood by examining real issues and scenarios, beginning here.  Examine job trends from time to time from the World Economic Forum.  Finally, regularly evaluate your skill gaps against the Geospatial Technology Competency Model.

Which of the above 5 trends seem most interesting to you?  In addition, there are surely about other trends that I am leaving off of this list of 5:  Which come to your mind that are important to you?  I look forward to your comments below.

About the Author
I believe that spatial thinking can transform education and society through the application of Geographic Information Systems for instruction, research, administration, and policy. I hold 3 degrees in Geography, have served at NOAA, the US Census Bureau, and USGS as a cartographer and geographer, and teach a variety of F2F (Face to Face) (including T3G) and online courses. I have authored a variety of books and textbooks about the environment, STEM, GIS, and education. These include "Interpreting Our World", "Essentials of the Environment", "Tribal GIS", "The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data", "International Perspectives on Teaching and Learning with GIS In Secondary Education", "Spatial Mathematics" and others. I write for 2 blogs, 2 monthly podcasts, and a variety of journals, and have created over 5,000 videos on the Our Earth YouTube channel. Yet, as time passes, the more I realize my own limitations and that this is a lifelong learning endeavor and thus I actively seek mentors and collaborators.