GIS Software has to be Hard to Use

Serious though, right? GIS has been defined by those who create much of it at “Scientific Software”. Because of such, it needs to be:

  1. Expensive
  2. Difficult to use
  3. Poorly documented
  4. Buggy
  5. Slow
ArcGIS Toolbars

Professional GIS*

GIS software is literally the kitchen sink. Most GIS software started out as a project for some company and then morphed into a product. They are a collection of tools created for specific projects duct taped together and sold as a subscription. We’ve talked about re-imagining how we work with spatial data but we rarely turn the page. The GIS Industrial Complex (open source and proprietary, everything is awful) is built upon making things hard to do. There has been attempts to solve the problem but then in themselves are usually built for a project rather than a product. Somewhat cynical but you have to wonder if this is true.

Tools such as Tableau are the future and as they add more spatial capability GIS Specialists will be out of a job. Being a button pusher seems more and more like a dead end job.

GIS and the Keyboard

I think you can usually tell when a GIS Professional learned GIS by how they use their keyboard. Those who learned either on UNIX command line programs such as ArcInfo or GDAL seem to go out of their way to type commands either through keystrokes or scripting while those who learned in the GUI era, either ArcView 3.x or ArcGIS Desktop prefer to use a mouse. Now generalizing is always dangerous but it highlights things about how GIS analysis is done.


I almost feel like Yakov Smirnoff saying “What a country!” when you realize that most of the complicated scripting commands of the 90s are completed almost perfectly by dropping a couple GIS layers on a wizard and keep clicking next. Esri should be commended for making these tools drop-dead simple to use. But it brings up the issue of does anyone under stand what is going on with these tools when they run them? Let’s take a simple example for Intersect.

Esri Intersect Tool

So simple right? You just take your input features, choose where the output feature goes and hit OK. Done. But what about those optional items below. How many people actually ever set those? Not many of course and many times you don’t need to set them but not understanding why they are options makes it dangerous that you might not perform your analysis correctly. I’ll say you don’t understand how to run a GIS command unless you understand not only what the command does but all the options.
You don’t have to learn Python to be a GIS Analyst, running Model Builder or just the tools from ArcCatalog is good enough. But if you find yourself not even seeing these options on the bottom, let alone understand what they are and why they are used, you aren’t anything more than a button pusher. And button pushers are easily replaced. The Esri Intersect Tool has many options and using it like below will only give you minimum power and understanding of how GIS works.

Esri Intersect Tool with blinders on.

In the old days of keyboards, you have to type commands out and know what each one did. In fact many commands wouldn’t run unless you put an option in. Part of it is when you type the words “fuzzy_tollerance” enough times you want to know what they heck it is. I think keyboard GIS connected users to the commands and concepts of GIS more than wizards do. Much like working with your hands connects people to woodworking, working with your keyboard connects people to GIS.

Jack Answers Your Questions — 2016 Edition

Ever since GIS was created in a dark damp room in Canada, Jack has answered your questions. In the past this was a secret Q&A that only registered Esri users going to the UC could see but for the past 10 years or so Esri has posted it online. I’ve read through most of it and I think the part that has me most excited is the Python Web API. Just think about that for a bit, some amazing opportunities. 10.5 is on it’s way. We should take bets to see how far the 10.x releases get before they go into maintenance mode. I’m going with 10.8.

That said, the problem with the list is it’s so damn hard to read so as a service I’m pulling out what I view as the important questions and what Jack answered.

Q1: What is the meaning of this year’s User Conference Theme: GIS — Enabling a Smarter World?

A1: GIS is so smart that they’ve named whole industries after it. Smart Cities, Smart Homes, Smart Cars and Smart & Final. You can put Smart in front of anything and you sound smart. So in the spirit of Smart being smarter, we are using the power word, “Enabling” with Smart + World. You’d better believe we’ll also be mentioning Smart Maps later.

Q2: How does the Internet of Things (IoT) work and how does it connect and integrate with GIS?

A2: IoT is the new hotness. We looked at the Gartner Hype Cycle and saw that much of our previous GIS integration buzz words were dropping off. IoT should be on the Hype Cycle for years to come so it’s safe. Basically we’ll show you how to connect to things that you don’t care about with APIs that are difficult to use. It will be a fun time. Your Washing Machine is so in need of being a dot on a map.

Q3: What is the Esri Map Book and how should I use it?

A3: The Map Book is something we’ve given out every year for just about forever. You put the book in your suitcase where it gets bent during transport back to your GIS cube. Then you stick it on your shelf where it sits next to all your other Map Books as a badge of honor to show your peers that you collect Esri Map Books.

Q4: Is ArcGIS too complicated for a small nonprofit to understand and use?

A4: Yes of course. It’s too complicated for GIS users to understand and use. That is the whole point. If it was easy, then you wouldn’t feel like you’re getting value out of it. Super Mario Bros. was hard to beat, but you kept at it. Same with ArcGIS. Get that perfect score folks! This isn’t consumer software, it’s scientific.

Q5: What is a GIS Hub?

Q5: Our latest attempt to try and find ways to convince you to use ArcGIS Online. Rather than refine the message, we’re of the mindset to create new products and terms that confuse users. We call it the GIS Industrial Complex. GIS Hubs are collections of data on the web that don’t get updated very often.

Q6: How is Esri doing?

A6: Doing great thanks!

Q7: What is the big idea with Web GIS?

A7: What is the big idea with all these stupid questions?

Q8: What does the future hold for GIS?

A8: Lots of Microsoft Excel, DBF management and data silos.

Q9: What are some of the important innovations for ArcGIS 10.5?

A9: First, we’ll drop some big data terms on you. Second, we’ll create something called Insights which sounds cool because it’s “intuitive enterprise charting”. Third, we are reminding you we have a product called CityEngine. Fourth, we’ll introduce more wizard based tools that require no understanding of why you’re clicking next. Fifth, we have another Python library because that’s what you all want.

Q10: Can you explain what a Web GIS is?

A10: Um, GIS on the Web stupid.

Q11: What is ArcGIS Open Data?

A11: Something the boys in the lab cooked up. Allows both Esri and our business partners to check a box on responses to RFPs. You’re welcome…

Q12: What is the best way to give feedback to Esri about software issues?

A12: Complain on Twitter.

Q13: What is smart mapping?

A13: I swear to god that nobody asked this question.

Q14: Why does Esri have two desktop solutions?

A14: Because through feedback you let us know you liked it when we had ArcView 3.2a and ArcGIS Desktop 8.0.1 at the same time. We know you want something new but new sucks because it’s so different. So we’ll have two paths you’ll have to navigate. Keeps you busy doesn’t it? Think back to your old APRs and how much fun you had migrating them to MXDs. We have wizards that will simplify this but you still know it will be a nightmare. So enjoy ArcGIS for Desktop, we’re keeping it around for a long time.

Q15: Will ArcMap be deprecated anytime soon?

A15: Nope, it will be around for a long time, you’re still using ArcView 3.x on that WinXP computer aren’t you? Make a VM with Widows 10 and ArcGIS for Desktop 10.5 stand alone. You’ll be safe for a long time.

Q16: What are the new capabilities coming with the summer release, ArcGIS Pro 1.3?

A16: We’re getting close to having 15% of the functionality of ArcGIS Desktop. It takes time to migrate the kitchen sink.

Q17: How would you describe ArcGIS for Server today?

A17: Expensive

Q18: What is ArcGIS Online?

Q18: We’re still trying to figure that out. The plan is to eventually move everyone to ArcGIS Online named users for licensing. Be ready and embrace your new GIS Hub.