GIS User Interfaces – Should we bother improving them?

There is an ongoing debate about whether GIS has a future as a profession.  The path to get here would be to go to school and get some sort of a degree or certificate in Geography or GIS, and then get a job specifically as a GIS professional.  The alternative is that it is simply a niche that a few people will specialize in, but that is not large enough to support a large number of employees.  As I think about it, the other option that is increasingly common is for GIS to be a tool.  In this form, people from all manner of different professions will learn to use GIS as one more tool to perform the functions of their job.

I recently happened upon a Twitter discussion about whether or not it was worth improving the interface of existing and GIS software.  The gist on one side was that it was a complete waste of time because GIS is not going to exist as a profession in a few years anyway, and what is left won’t be worth the effort to devote to improving a user interface for software.

It seems to me that the future of GIS is going to lie in two veins, the people that do nothing but GIS, and those who are professionals in another field, and have begun to use GIS as a tool in performing the functions of their job.  At this point, the number of jobs in the mapping industry is still expanding, on both of these fronts.  Just look at the rise of Google Maps, Earth, Twitter, the ability to check in to many different websites from a location, and you will see that more people are using spatial data as part of their daily lives.  This means that the technology driving these applications has to be developed.  This is to say nothing of the environmental, engineering, medical research, economic, etc. based jobs that are incorporating some form of spatial analysis in their workflow.  So that covers the peripheral jobs.  There are still the direct GIS professional jobs to be discussed.  I admit, I’m not sure how much the demand for these sorts of jobs will increase in the future, but there will always be a subset of them necessary.  At some point, people are going to need GIS data created and maintained, and maps created.

The other part of the equation, is the use of GIS by people as an adjunct to their profession.  The case could be made here on either side.  One the one hand, they generally have tools that they already use to complete their projects or tasks, and these tools may incorporate GIS technology in some way.  On the other hand, they may end up needing to use GIS software to complete some tasks and create outputs that would then be used in their main software.  Either way, there is going to be some usage of software that incorporates GIS features.

What this all boils down to is that the use of GIS is increasing.  Whether people are accessing spatial data through specific GIS software, or through a web interface, or through software they already use that has been extended to include GIS functionality, it still stands that there are user interfaces involved at every step of the way.  To say that it is a waste of time to put effort into improving these interfaces seems short-sighted at the very least.

I think it is not out of bounds to say that increasing access to geospatial data and analysis can potentially benefit many people.  It is likely that the rate of increase of people being exposed to it is not as high as it could be.  If this is the case, is it possible that one thing holding people back is the user interface of the software itself?  Perhaps it is time for a paradigm shift in the approach to a user interface for GIS software, whether GIS-centric, or as an extension to other software.  Let’s look to the future and try to make it better, as opposed to being increasingly unhappy with what exists now and seeing no utility in improving or trying something different.

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