CyberGIS: The Next Frontier for GIS?

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What is CyberGIS and how will it help advance the geospatial industry?  Jack Pitts, a UK-based GIS Consultant, working in terrestrial and marine ecology, writes about how the field of GIS is moving towards an Internet-based platform.  

We are truly in the midst of the digital age: a time when information, services and data are all readily available and at our fingertips, be it through the use of traditional PCs or modern smartphones and tablets. The common denominator in all of this is, of course, the Internet.

The number of people accessing the Internet has significantly increased since 2005 when, in the UK, 22.7 million people were using the Internet every month. Today, that figure stands at 92.5 million. Over the same time period in the US, that number has grown from 180.5 million to 294 million[1]. Clearly, more and more people are using the Internet in their everyday lives, and business and academic applications have followed suit.

GIS has not been immune to this and has seen a rapid shift to web-based offerings in recent years: take Esri’s ArcGIS Online for example, or the desktop, web-based uDig platform. Online solutions have freed many users from the need to store large datasets on their own servers, and in some cases, removed the need for desktop GIS software altogether. Add to that the growing number of mobile applications available for capturing data, performing basic spatial analyses and transmitting that data back to the office, and it is clear that GIS is a technology keen to move with the times.

A high level overview of ArcGIS Online.

An overview of ArcGIS Online.

What is CyberGIS?

The industry isn’t stopping there though, and researchers from multiple institutions are currently involved in developing an online-only platform, termed CyberGIS. But what does this actually mean?

CyberGIS – according to Esri, one of the institutions involved in its development – is GIS taken from the desktop and transplanted online. This includes the relevant software, hardware, storage, networks, and training materials[2]. The plan is for all of this to be based around Open Source principles, including a core of software elements that are interoperable and reusable, within a hardware framework that can be scaled up or down depending on a user’s particular needs[3].

What we are looking at then is a web-based GIS platform, which is entirely Open Source and scalable. But why? Where is the demand for such a system coming from? According to the University of Illinois, which is leading the project, CyberGIS provides the ability to handle very large spatial datasets and complex analytical software[4], which current desktop applications cannot. Moreover, it believes that the need to perform such analysis on these large datasets is only going to increase, and that by synthesising computational power through cyberinfrastructure this demand can be met.

The third annual meeting of the project’s Executive Committee (held in September this year) has hailed its recent “substantial progress”[5], which has seen three major software platforms emerge. In turn, each of these platforms allow for large numbers of users to access CyberGIS capabilities; to make available more advanced geospatial tools and; to facilitate the integration of scientific applications.

This then, looks as though GIS as an industry may be reaching the Holy Grail of GIS in “the cloud”, freeing the end user from expensive desktop licences and server hardware. Well, perhaps. The testing of these services still has a long way to run, and large-scale implementation of a resource of this nature will take time. Esri themselves say that this technology is yet to be proven in all possible use cases, and whilst a key aim of the project is to create an online problem-solving environment in which users collaborate both brain power and data[6], those who work in GIS will be all too aware of the reluctance of many to share data that they have spent money to capture.

Screenshot from the CyberGIS Gateway's Viewshed Analysis web application.

Screenshot from the CyberGIS Gateway‘s Viewshed Analysis web application.

However, there are clear benefits of a CyberGIS platform: its ubiquity being the obvious one. A recent post by Kirk Goldsberry – a visiting scholar at Harvard and professor at Michigan State University – lamented the lack of what he termed ‘spatial thinkers’, and access to geographical training[7]. CyberGIS may well provide a solution to that, lowering the barriers to entry and providing online training and tuition. This of course raises further questions and challenges, which include how to make a CyberGIS resource that is easily understood by both professionals and the layman, whilst still maintaining scientific validity.

Of course, these are considerations still to be addressed, and they will need considerable attention as the CyberGIS project continues to develop. In the meantime, the possibilities that this new development might bring is an exciting prospect, and one that has clearly outlined the future of the GIS industry.

References

[1] Paul G. in E-Town. “FAQ: How Big Is the Internet? – About Internet for Beginners.” 2010. 1 Oct. 2013 <http://netforbeginners.about.com/od/weirdwebculture/f/How-Big-Is-the-Internet.htm>

[2] “CyberGIS – | Esri Insider.” 2013. 2 Oct. 2013 <http://blogs.esri.com/esri/esri-insider/2013/09/30/2512/>

[3] “CyberGIS Software Integration for Sustained Geospatial Innovation.” 2012. 2 Oct. 2013 <http://cybergis.cigi.uiuc.edu/cyberGISwiki/doku.php/about>

[4] “CyberGIS Software Integration for Sustained Geospatial Innovation.” 2012. 2 Oct. 2013 <http://cybergis.cigi.uiuc.edu/cyberGISwiki/doku.php/about>

[5] “Year 3 – CyberGIS – University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.” 2013. 2 Oct. 2013 <http://cybergis.cigi.uiuc.edu/cyberGISwiki/lib/exe/fetch.php/cybergis-nsfannualreport-year3.pdf>

[6] “Year 3 – CyberGIS – University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.” 2013. 2 Oct. 2013 <http://cybergis.cigi.uiuc.edu/cyberGISwiki/lib/exe/fetch.php/cybergis-nsfannualreport-year3.pdf>

[7] “The Importance of Spatial Thinking Now – Harvard Business Review …” 2013. 2 Oct. 2013 <http://blogs.hbr.org/2013/09/teaching-and-learning-visualiz/>


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