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On the Mark: Will Democracy Vote the Experts Off the GIS Island?

By Mark Hall
August 6, 2007 10:04 AM ET

Computerworld - With the arrival of online mapping services such as Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth, geographic information systems (GIS) are now at the fingertips of every Tom, Dick and Mary with an Internet connection. This strikes Vint Cerf as good news. The chief Internet evangelist at Google Inc., and one of the founding fathers of the Internet, says he'd like to see a geographic equivalent of Wikipedia mdash; "Geopedia," he dubs it mdash; where anyone could add to the world's geographic know-how. Jack Dangerman is skeptical. He's the president of Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc., a leading GIS software vendor in Redlands, Calif., known as ESRI. He worries that even the best-intentioned amateur could provide inaccurate data that could lead to a disaster. "Who wants to dig a hole and run into a pipe?" Dangerman asks.

A democratic GIS world would be more accurate, says Michael Jones
A democratic GIS world would be more accurate, says Michael Jones
The debate about whether GIS is a domain for experts or the rest of us raged throughout last month's Geo­Web 2007 conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. According to Michael Jones, Google Earth's chief technologist, by giving everyone access to GIS tools, you'll end up with "a big number of users converging on a truth." Locals, he insists, are closer to most GIS data than experts and have a vested interest in its accuracy. Timothy Seiple, a scientist at Columbus, Ohio-based Battelle Memorial Institute, which manages government laboratories, agrees. "Let's not just democratize GIS data usage; let's democratize data creation," he says. Ron Lake, CEO of GIS software vendor Galdos Systems Inc. in Vancouver, says there is a place for "crowd-sourcing data," and GIS professionals need to be willing to work with it. However, he adds, "there is such a thing as expert interpretation of information."



Utilities Could Use a Little GIS Democracy

Geoff Zeiss, director of technology at Autodesk Inc. in San Rafael, Calif., argues that North America is experiencing an infrastructure crisis, much of which could be solved if up-to-date GIS data were available to the right people at the right time. He says the situation is particularly acute for utility companies. "They have pathological problems," Zeiss says, in that they are unable to get information about the condition of utility infrastructure from workers in the field back to the central data stores. They've been able to skate by, relying on a workforce that collectively carries the knowledge base in their heads, he says. But more than half of those workers are over 45 and heading toward retirement. What then? Zeiss argues that utilities need to give field workers tools to input GIS-related data into centralized systems before that information is lost.

Sadly, it's a two-way problem. Eldon Feaver, senior engineer for grid operations at Hydro One Inc. in Markham, Ontario, says that while worker safety is a top corporate priority, it has been difficult to get geography-specific safety data from central databases into field workers' hands. But with the advent of Web 2.0 tools, his team was able to sidestep the internal IT politics and put together an online service for Hydro One field workers, who can now get real-time safety information such as the path to the closest hospital from their current location. The next step is to outfit workers with GPS devices so they can be located in an emergency, such as when they're stuck dangling from transmission lines, Feaver explains. Good idea.

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