ArcGIS Server Revisited

Legacy GIS System

We were talking this weekend about how much serving up GIS data has changed in the past 3 years.  GIS Server used to be so important to many of my friends companies to the point they spent tens of thousands of dollars on it a year.  But no longer, each one said that they stopped paying for server because they all use other options.  Now before I go on, I want to say this isn’t about sales data of Esri products.  It’s more about changes in how people are sharing spatial data.  Feel free to replace ArcGIS Server with your favorite GIS server package (Title is a bit of SEO, right?  Heck I’m not even talking about ArcGIS Server in this post).

I gave a talk years ago about something we did at the GNOCDC mapping recovery from Hurricane Katrina.  You can see the slide deck here and watch the video here.  Basically it was the seeds of what we are going through right now.  It wasn’t that what we were doing back there was very unique, it was just a realization that GIS can’t be hosting “enterprise” data in a “workgroup” environment.  Just like Katrina basically broke the GNOCDC GIS servers, it has become clear that there is almost no way for an organization to use classic GIS servers without putting a lot of load balancing and networking decisions in front of them.

For most companies this is just way too much infrastructure and licensing costs.  We’ve seen the rise of CartoDB, Mapbox and ArcGIS Online (or whatever it is called these days).  Each has pluses and minuses and while there is overlap, they all do things unique to themselves.  But what the big attraction for each is that you don’t have to manage the constellation yourself.

The biggest drawback each said was the unknown in licensing.  Most hosted GIS plans are costed in ways that GIS people aren’t familiar with.  Mapviews?  Nobody has analytics on that until you put it in these services.  100,000 map views sounds huge doesn’t it?  But how do you really know?  Service credits?  We’ve wondered what that even means for years.  But I’d wager beers that even with the unknown, you’ll still save money over your ArcGIS Server license or other maintenance you pay for hosting your own GIS server.

We’re at a crossroads here.  People have begun to start realizing standing up ArcGIS Server, Geoserver or other map servers makes little to no sense in the new marketplace.  Paying for hosting maps is cheaper in the long run, has more availability and is easier to use that classic self hosted mapping solutions.  ArcGIS Online for all it’s confusion is beginning to be leveraged by users and everyone I knew at the Esri UC knows what CartoDB and Mapbox do.  Back in the old days of WeoGeo, we had to prove what we know now every day.  The cost of “doing it yourself” is magnitudes higher than paying for hosting.

Tide is changing…


Hangouts with James Fee Season 4 is Arriving Soon. I Need Your Help!

Since I’ve decided to break Hangouts with James Fee into Spring and Fall “seasons” (sounds official doesn’t it?) the summer has been left to swimming and vacations.  But with Fall around the corner (temps in Tempe have dropped back down below 110F), it’s time to get serious about scheduling the next batch of hangouts.  I asked for feedback from people last season and it was a great help.  For the fall though I’d love to interview people who haven’t been on the show before or are not as well-known.  If you can email me with suggestions (heck include yourself if you want) I’d really appreciate it.  My favorite Hangout from last spring was with Lyzi Diamond and I’d love to have more like that.


Is GIS Heavy?

The other day I posted about using Turf.js to perform some simple GIS processes.  The venerable Brian Timoney made note of it.

I hadn’t really thought of the article in that context, I was just looking at a quick way to turn a CSV into a GeoJSON file quickly.  But let’s look at Brian’s point, is desktop GIS heavy?


I’ve maintained since Esri abandoned ArcInfo Workstation in the early 2000s, GIS has become difficult to use.  Not in the sense that any idiot1 can click the next button, but the simple fact they have no idea what they’re doing.  To accomplish this, Esri spent tons of R&D to make GIS as simple as drag a couple of layers to a dialog and just click next until you have an output.  You don’t even need to understand the setting, they default pretty much out of the box.  Setting fuzzy tolerance?  Not a problem, it’s labeled as optional.  The need to understand why you are performing analysis is not needed.

Now that isn’t to say Esri is doing something bad.  They’re simplifying something that was very scientific and required understanding of FORTRAN or UNIX into something that almost anyone can do.  I think at some level they should be commended for making GIS easier and not limited to a bunch of weirdos with Sun SPARCstation 20 workstations.  But in doing so they turned something lightweight into something of a beast.  Thus Brian’s heavy comment.

But that’s not the end to the story, at least from an Esri perspective.  Esri at the same time they were throwing wizards in from of every tool in ArcGIS Desktop, created one of the most powerful GIS libraries ever created, ArcPy.  It’s everything we wanted ArcInfo Workstation to become, a modern, no proprietary scripting language with tons of GIS analysis tools.  But for some reason, Esri doesn’t highlight it as they should.  Just go to and search for ArcPy. Typical Esri results, it’s a mess.  Brian is reading this now nodding, “GIS is heavy”.

My example using Turf.js could have as easily been done with a simple Python script as it could have been done with Turf.js.  I just chose JavaScript because I was in a mood I suppose.  But the process of creating a script in ArcPy isn’t much more complicated2.  Is ArcPy “desktop GIS”?  I would say so as you get it when you install ArcGIS Desktop.  But it isn’t heavy, you can create Python in notepad.exe and run from the command line.  Or as most are now preferring, use Visual Studio 2015.

Heavy GIS is starting up ArcMap, starting up ArcCatalog, dragging and dropping into a wizard, and fighting through the next screens.  The process is similar in QGIS which seems to be adopting some of the same wizard dialogs as ArcGIS.  They’re heavy because that’s what they need to be.  Scott Morehouse years ago told me ArcGIS was complicated because it is “scientific software”.  At the time I laughed but I do get it.  It’s the long tail of long tails in GIS, solving GIS analysis in so many edge cases that it gets bloated.

Esri should3 have a section of their website devoted to Python scripting.  Showing how much easier (and faster) it is to do your analysis with ArcPy over ArcGIS Toolbox4.  There are pieces all over their website about Python and ArcGIS, but “Scripting” section.  That would go a long way to making Desktop GIS not heavy.  Searching Google for “Esri Scripting” gives you a dead-end to ArcScripts.  That should change.

  1. Meant with love of course 
  2. At least for those who know the Esri Geoprocessing library 
  3. Double negative aside… I can’t believe they don’t but their search is awful 
  4. Is that a thing anymore 

Minecraft, Second Life and Google Earth

This hilarious article on abandoned Universities in Second Life got me thinking about 3D worlds and GIS.

Colleges were among those that bought the hype of the Linden Lab-developed virtual world. Many universities set up their own private islands to engage students; some even held classes within Second Life.

Most of these virtual universities are gone –– it costs almost $300 per month to host your own island –– but it turns out a handful remain as ghost towns. I decided to travel through several of the campuses, to see what’s happening in Second Life college-world in 2015

I mean seriously, what the heck were we thinking with Second Life? But while Second Life was more hype than function, KML and Google Earth was our great hope.  KML export, Arc2Earth, SketchUp all were tools that were used liberally to export our GIS models to Google Earth in hopes we’d finally have a universal GIS viewer.  My site is littered with KML export articles that we all thought would change our lives.  But honestly none of them really have taken off.  In fact I rarely create KML anymore, my clients just doesn’t use Google Earth anymore.

So where is Minecraft in all of this?  Safe Software has an Minecraft conversation as part of FME.  If I look at the analytics to this site, most of the top 10 search terms have some tie in to Minecraft.  But it feels so much different from Second Life or even Google Earth.  I honestly have put some thought into licensing FME and putting up a GIS to Minecraft conversion service due to the interest in it.

But are we exporting GIS to Minecraft for visualization?  No but I think there is a different thing going on here.  Minecraft is as consumer as we get.  GIS is very enterprise and business focused.  We’ve always wondered how do we get ordinary people to use GIS data1.  What Minecraft does is bring all that analysis, data conversion, transformation and scripting into the mainstream.  I can’t recall my son ever being so interested in anything as he is in Minecraft.  I’m sure your kids are the same way.

I’m still not really sure if Minecraft GIS is has any more traction than Second Life or KML for GIS professionals.  It could very well be that in 3 years I’ll look back on this post and laugh at my words.  But I’m betting that Microsoft will make Minecraft bigger than it’s ever been and Minecraft export format will be built into every GIS package.

  1. Well other than to find a Starbucks 


Simply GIS

I had some endpoints of a lines that I needed to convert to GeoJSON today.  Before I started I do what every GIS professional does, take inventory of the multitude of ways to actually accomplish this.  I mentally jotted down the following:

  • Esri ArcGIS
  • QGIS
  • Online tools (csv -> json)
  • R
  • Python

I started to realize that these are all pretty heavy tools to just accomplish something as simple as a line string to line.  We literally pull out a chainsaw when all we want it to trim a little piece of paper.  Nothing simple about converting some coordinates into JSON.  Enter Turf.js.

turf.linestring – Creates a LineString based on a coordinate array. Properties can be added optionally.

So simple, plus it’s JavaScript already.  Honestly I need to keep coming back to Turf.js, the docs cover easily 90% of what we mostly do with GIS every day.  I just run Turf.js on my laptop and now I don’t even have to open up QGIS to get my work done.  The best part, all JavaScript!  So who is writing the Turf.js book right now?


Python and Visual Studio

I posted this a while back on twitter but someone asked me about it this morning and I thought I’d share it here on the blog.  The Visual Studio Blog has and article out on Why write Python in Visual Studio? which is worth reading for everyone writing Python on Windows.

Recently, Visual Studio 2015 was released with support for Python. Python Tools for Visual Studio (PTVS) are available to help throughout Visual Studio in all the places you’d expect, from editing and IntelliSense, to debugging, profiling, and publishing to Azure. You can find all the details and some video walkthroughs, documentation, and other resources on, and the post announcing Python Tools 2.1 and Python Tools 2.2 beta.

The post is a great read into the choices the Visual Studio team made on how to integrate IntelliSense with Python.  Honestly when VS 2015 came out I’ve started using it for all Python development on Windows and when I switch over to my Mac I really miss the features.  GIS users have embraced Python and having a real IDE to help them is a huge plus.  In the past I’ve avoided IDEs where I didn’t need them but with Python projects getting larger and more important, it really makes sense to organize them better.


The Story Behind Google Buying Waze

Waze cofounder tells us how his company’s $1 billion sale to Google really went down

The sale was a milestone for Israel’s young but huge startup community: The first Israeli consumer-app company to be bought for over $1 billion. In an instant, the whole “Startup Nation” decided to quit aiming for fast exits and build billion-dollar companies instead.

When Google bought Waze we were all amazed they paid $1B.  Not so much in that we didn’t think Waze was going to sell for $1B1 but that Google needed them.  In the end it was simple for Waze:

What made Google pretty attractive for us that No. 1, the company stayed in Israel. No. 2, we remained with our mission, to help drivers avoid traffic jams.

Well and that $1B was pretty attractive too.  I’m honestly not sure what is going to happen to Waze moving forward.  I still use it daily on my commute.  Waze is partnering with cities to improve traffic results and I know millions of others rely on it for better traffic results than Google Maps or Apple Maps.  But that’s the kicker right?  Questions that come to mind to me are:

  • What’s the incentive to innovate beyond improving traffic results?
  • What’s the status of the maps behind the application, are they being updated?
  • Does Google plan to shut Waze down and “integrate” traffic into Google Maps?
  • Is Waze just another example of supporting a proprietary map only to see it be pulled away from the community?

Google bought Waze over 2 years ago.  We haven’t seen anything new from Waze beyond these “partnering” programs2.  I’ll continue to use Waze for my commuting because it is such a time save but the end game of Waze is probably not benefiting me.

  1. Facebook was going to pull the trigger 

  2. Which I’m not even sure are being pursued anymore 


DigitalGlobe has a Maps API and brought along Mapbox

So DigitalGlobe has an API in beta.  Funny thing is when I first went to the page I saw this popup for the “first 100 customers”:

Get DigitalGlobe Maps API now for the introductory price of $1 per 1,000 views

I guess they don’t have 100 customers yet.  But let’s get beyond the question if it’s even relevant that DG has an API and look at their offering:

They’ve got two versions of their imagery API.  One that is global and has high frequency updates and one that is color balanced but only regional (and probably not updated often).  But what we really want to see is the API, right?  Well look at the splash page:

This is why we created a mapping API just for you: easily access our compelling high-resolution imagery of the earth along with fantastic stylized basemap content from Mapbox. We want you to use our imagery in your apps, no matter if you’re an industry giant or a promising startup. We believe our imagery is the standard upon which all others are measured, and we want you to benefit from our expertise.

Remember this partnership from 3 years ago?  Don’t be so surprised to see Mapbox there.  The plans have been put into motion to see Mapbox integrated with many other vendors but here we have DigitalGlobe’s API built on top of Mapbox.  I’m not sure if DG’s API will be popular but at least we know it’s a robust, easy to use and powerful API.

What’s the most interesting part of all this is Esri is not to be found.  DG and Esri have had a long time relationship but I think DG has realized that deals with Esri only benefit Esri.  Best of luck to DG and Mapbox!


The GIS Workflow

If there is one thing I’ve learned over the years it is that workflows are critical to creating a repeatable, defensible process.  The thing with GIS is that we’ve got to use so many different file formats and systems1.  I’ve been working on a relatively simple workflow, one that must be automated.  The whole process is stuck on a proprietary format by a vendor who makes Esri look like an open book.  Workflows generally are very easy to automate because so much of what we do in GIS is based upon APIs.  Heck we were using APIs before we know what we were working with was an API2.  But too much of what we do is based upon needing a license to export a binary format into an open one.

We can talk all we want about open data formats, LAS battles and every other GIS format war we want to argue about, but in the end we are usually up against a format that can’t be cracked, can’t be avoided or contractually is required.  The binary format industrial complex is strong but I refuse to be backed into these corners anymore.  Time to pivot into taking down this one.

Run away from the binary file industrial complex!
  1. I was actually going to type “silos” there but I felt dirty.  Honestly thought that is what we do 

  2. Yea I think I said that right