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.