Rebranding GIS and Other Observations from Attending the 2019 Washington URISA GIS Conference


In late May, I attended the 2019 Washington Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (WA URISA) Annual Conference in Tacoma, Washington. The event is one of the larger, local geospatial conferences each year in the Puget Sound region and brings together local government, state government, and private sector professionals to hone their geospatial analysis skills and learn what changes are happening in the GIS industry. This conference was especially applicable to my field of energy efficiency program evaluation, as geospatial analytics are becoming an increasingly important tool for utilities to increase energy efficiency program participation to targeted populations, decrease the need for infrastructure upgrades, and round-out data analytics capabilities. It was clear from the workshops and conference sessions I attended that the industry is undergoing significant changes, including: (1) industry titans forcing system changes/upgrades; (2) the rise of automation to handle mundane or routine geospatial analyses; and (3) the rebranding of “GIS” from a stand-alone analytical tool to a crucial cog in the larger “data analytics” machine. Below, I discuss these changes and the ramifications they may have on utilities and the energy efficiency industry.

ESRI Pushing Customers to Upgrade (or Switch Software Providers):

ESRI, the designer of ArcGIS, has been pushing their sleek, new ArcGIS Pro software for the last few years. One of the pitfalls of ArcGIS Pro is that it requires a yearly subscription and some analysis tools are “tokenized” (i.e., require incremental payment depending on the number of records analyzed). There is quite a learning curve to ArcGIS Pro, but the industry consensus seems to be that it is a more intuitive interface than ArcGIS for Desktop. Additionally, ArcGIS Pro has all sorts of potential upgrades and services available that may help utility clients, including the Utility Network Management extension. ESRI claims they will phase out ArcGIS for Desktop in the near future, even though they just released a new version of the software last month (10.7.1).

For utilities, the push to switch to ArcGIS Pro may be a good time to either 1) invest in their GIS analysis capabilities or 2) shop around for a GIS software best fit. Utilities may want to use ArcGIS Pro to ramp up their GIS-related business strategies such as micro-targeting energy efficiency program participation or managing every aspect of their assets using the Utility Network Management extension (e.g., tracking transmission lines, underground power lines, substation infrastructure, etc.). For other utilities, they may not need the robust services that ArcGIS Pro provides and get better value from lower-cost (MapBox, CARTO, etc.) or no-cost (QGIS, R statistical software, etc.) software.

Automating the Minutia (and Automatically Detecting the Rest):

Many cities, state agencies, and private companies discussed working to automate critical, yet computationally simple, data checks and cleaning processes. Organizations both large and small have set up these processes to run overnight on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis depending on the need. Simple checks on data such as detecting and correcting email domain names (e.g., replacing “.coom” with “.com”) free up crucial staff member time. For other more complex cleaning processes, organizations are developing code to detect issues and sending automated email messages to the relevant stakeholders (e.g., “Jane in IT: The X data was imported with the wrong date formats”). By automating these messages, individuals who can fix the issue are promptly alerted and issues are remedied before they multiply.

Rebranding GIS as Part of Larger Data Analytics Ecosystem: GIS professionals at the conference recognize that historical separation of GIS work from the larger world of data analytics created artificial barriers. As GIS systems become more complex, they more frequently rely on cloud-based services, server architecture, and customized code to link the systems and processes to one another. In addition, the quality of GIS analysis is dependent on the quality of the underlying data, and GIS professionals increasingly rely on code to quickly clean datasets. This separation from data analytics has had real consequences- Several individuals I spoke with told of a recent reclassification of Washington State GIS employees from higher-paid IT designations to lower-paid GIS designations (see the IT positions that existed until the end of June, and the “IT professional structure” that now exists with the state). The separation of these communities has come at a time when the term “GIS” has also fallen out of favor with researchers. According to JStore data presented at the conference by Joshua Greenberg, while research paper references to “GIS” rapidly grew from the 80’s to the early 2000’s, references have fallen precipitously since then. Several professionals I spoke with felt that the term “geospatial data analytics” would be the term of choice in the future, linking GIS analysis more firmly to the wider field of data analytics. Through this rebranding, the industry hopes to shift how we think about GIS research and especially how that research is used across business processes. Now more than ever it is important to stress how geospatial analysis is a crucial aspect of data analytics and shift stakeholders from viewing GIS analysis as a stand-alone service.

To build the case that GIS is simply another tool in the data analytics toolkit, several organizations have begun linking the GIS databases with traditional databases and analyzing these datasets using quick SQL queries. An example would be for a public utility who has a GIS database of electric substations and another database of customer contact data. By linking these systems, the utility would be able to quickly contact customers when a substation had issues and notify these customers that they are working on a solution.

The issues discussed during the conference are some of the same issues we hear about from our clients. The field of geospatial analysis is evolving and we look forward to helping our clients benefit from these new developments.