It is Different With COVID-19…

I started blogging in May of 2005. Right before Katrina hit and everything we knew about GIS disaster response changed. Katrina was that moment where the static image PDF of a map changed to a map service that ran on almost any modern (at the time) web browser. Immediately every GIS map server that was out there became irrelevant at best, dead to the world at worst. Remember though, Google bought Google Earth almost a year before Katrina and Google Maps didn’t launch until early 2005. The tools that created this disaster response revolution were in place, but not too many people used them or had heard of them. But less than 6 months after Google Maps hit the web, Katrina response was almost entirely driven by their tools.

Remember this? Don’t try and pan!

If you look at my blog entries from September and October, you can see attempts by Esri, Microsoft, Yahoo! and others to try and address this new paradigm of mapping but none of them stuck. Everyone, and I mean everyone, was using Google. Esri ArcScripts back then probably had 50 tools to convert SHP to KML or MXD to KML. We had tools like Arc2Earth that specialized in making maps easier with Google. And while Esri tools were still being used to generate the data, the display was happening on other platforms.

This of course gave rise to the Neogeography revolution. I’ll spare you the bare breasted Andrew Turner graphic but at this time we had so many people doing things with GIS that had no idea what GIS was let alone what Esri was. The limitations on getting started with mapping went down and all you needed was a computer and a text editor to make a map. My blog is littered with examples of Neogeography, from EVS Islands to all that great Flickr mapping that Dan Catt and crew did back then. People didn’t ask for permission, they just did it. It all culminated in what I consider the greatest crowdsourced disaster mapping effort, the wildfires in San Diego back in 2007 (feel free to choose the Haiti response over this, that’s fine. I really like the example of using Google My Maps in your backyard for this).

In all fairness, Andrew wasn’t literally saying it killed GIS.

But something happened after this, it isn’t that people stopped mapping. Look at OSM growth. The amount of crowd sourced data continues to grow exponentially. But responses to disasters seemed to be run by Google and Microsoft themselves. Tools like Google My Maps continue to exist, but I truly can’t recall using one in the past 10 years. Or if the disaster was not interesting enough for Google, you’d see people using government websites to get that information. The Esri mapping had finally caught up that people would use the fire maps from the DOI other 3 letter agencies without complaining. The citizen effort moved to Twitter where it continues to show great promise, just not as a Google My Map. Take a look at the Bush Fire here in Arizona on Twitter. So many great posts by people but maps are either static images shared or links to traditional InciWeb maps.

This brings us full circle to COVID-19 mapping. Think of the best and most up to date COVID websites. They are built on Esri technology. Google has websites, Microsoft has them too. But the Esri dashboard has finally had its moment in the sun. I wonder if this is because the market has matured, that the tools have matured or the data set lends itself to a more scientific approach to display rather than simple lines and points. The Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Maps & Trends website is the bible for this epidemic.

GIS is no longer a side show on this response. I’m guessing that because this is more structured government data, Esri is uniquely positioned to be in the middle of it but even then, their tools have come a long way from the ArcIMS/ArcWeb madness that we dealt with during Katrina. COVID-19 dashboard is the opposite of Neogeography and that is OK. The influence of the citizens on mapping is clearly shown in the Esri tools we deal with today. They still drive me nuts from time to time but let’s be honest, they really do work for this situation. As we close out 1/2 of the way through 2020, hopefully we can keep the need for disaster response to a minimum.

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…