25 years of Geospatial

I was just thinking about this on my plane flight back from Cityzenith HQ. Spring of 1993 I was first exposed to what I later learned was called GIS because some guy in Canada had the smarts to label what we were all learning to do. My exposure in college was mostly because pen and paper cartography I was learning didn’t work out for me, a computer geek since my Dad brought home a TI-99/4a and I discovered you could write applications.

Of course, I bought my stupid pen set for some considerable amount of money (at least to a college student back then) and tried to draw the Puget Sound with any degree of accuracy. Seriously though, if you’ve ever seen me draw even a circle or a square you can pretty much guess how this “puget sound” looked like (I recall it looked like an eggplant crossed with a maple leaf). I recall sitting in the computer lab for the statistics class and seeing that on the Macintosh computer a copy of Aldus Freehand was there. I fired that up, drew a damn good looking Puget Sound and submitted it to the teacher. So I didn’t even get an F, he gave me an incomplete which was to be expected back then. Computers were for spreadsheets and reports, not cartography.


But while this was going on, I had zero idea that this problem had already been solved by many people, including those Canadians I mentioned earlier. But it took two more years for me to be connected to the mid-decade US census and my internship at the City of Mesa, AZ planning department until I was exposed to Arc/INFO 5 and ArcView 2 on Unix to see how the world of points, polylines and polygons existed. But there I was creating maps in Freehand and throwing SPSS tables on top of them. GIS as we know it today, but I had zero idea what the heck I was doing. Originally being an Economics major I had the concept of table + pie chart/line graph down pat. I just replaced the chart with a hand-drawn map.

This week has been about sun angles, shadow analysis and time sliders in Unity, but it’s hard not to think back to a time where my struggle against drawing a map by hand introduced me to computer maps and eventually a career for basically 25 years. I can see an alternate universe where 1993 James sucked it up, worked hard to draw the water body by hand and became a city planner in some small midwestern city. Thank god that didn’t happen, and I was able to grow from Arc/INFO -> ArcView -> PC ArcInfo -> ArcInfo Workstation -> ArcGIS Desktop -> FME Desktop -> uDIG -> QGIS and then on to the multitude of open source libraries I use in my day to day workflows.

While that is a fun path to think of, I get excited to my next 25 years in spatial. Working with Unity, OSM, Elastic and AWS Lambda I can see how what we do has such a great exciting future ahead of us. The world loves what we do, and we’re lucky enough to be able to do it every day. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad for using software or products because it’s not “hipster” or “open.” If you’re pushing the bar forward, that’s good enough.