GIS as a Silo of Babel

MC Escher Tower of Babel

The GIS Dev Cafe is asking where is the community? A community needs a common language.

Lately I’ve felt that GIS is a Silo of Babel quickly crumbling.

God, observing the arrogance of humanity in the construction, resolves to confuse the previously uniform language of humanity, thereby preventing any such future efforts.
Wikipedia on The Tower of Babel

While once we could live comfortably in the silo, we now must build solutions that connect with the rest of the world, requiring us to deal with many languages: SQL, C#, XML, javascript …

I don’t find the slogan “GIS is the language of geography” to be very enlightening. It’s not a language – not even a metalanguage. Please don’t get offended, but GIS can best be described as a religion.

When I encounter a problem with a GIS solution I usually search web sites that focus on that particular language. But when the problem is peculiar to GIS namespaces, the resources are not quite there yet.

Geography is about describing where something is, for example, by using a point. But look there’s several Point class in the new testament (ESRI.ArcGIS.aRCWebService, ESRI.ArcGIS.ADF.ArcGISServer, ESRI.ArcGIS.ADF.Web.Geometry), plus several in the old testament (ESRI.ArcGIS.Geometry, ESRI.ArcGIS.DataSourcesFile.ISMRouterPoint) Juggling between these different namespaces often amounts to an exercise in exegesis.

Right now ArcGIS Server is stuck with yet another chicken vs. egg dilemma. In order for a community to form, there needs to be a language, in order for people to learn a language, there needs to be a community where they can practice conversation.

Maybe a Revival Tent is needed as a third choice (place?) between the Cathedral and the Bazaar. We need to freely share experience, while not necessarily sharing our intellectual property. Perhaps Dave can make such a tent using

revival tent

ESRI has forums, but there’s not much activity there. Maybe everyone is being shy? Perhaps one way out of this is to start speaking in tongues. Stop being so orthodox – get out there, roll on the floor, maybe even handle a few snakes to get into the mood. Better yet, help me.

snakes on a plane

7 comments so far

  1. emptyset on

    I am all for this concept of a tent revival. I go to those all the time, all with being from Georgia and whatnot. I haven’t met any fellow GIS developers there, though. Maybe this has to be organized – shall we have GISCON?

  2. Christopher Schmidt on

    You say “GIS”, but it sounds from your post like what you are thinking and talking is “ESRI”. The two are not synonymous.

    There is a quite active community around Open Source Geospatial: and it does speak geography, and it doesn’t sound like religion, it sounds like getting things done in and around the space we’re involved in, and it’s growing every day.

    So perhaps your point of view is simply related to the fact that you equate ESRI and GIS… and maybe that valuable piece of information should be used to change your decisions going forward.

  3. Paul Bissett on

    @Christopher – while I agree that perhaps ESRI and GIS should not be synonymous, they currently serve the greatest segment of the professional GIS market. Some estimates put their market share at >90%. While not synonymous in fact, they may be in professional practice.

    I think the open source community will have to establish a new means of communicating/sharing/delivering content that results in (significant) revenue generation before the field becomes more “open”.

  4. Kirk on

    Yes Christopher, I was thinking in the context of my particular denomination (ESRI). But still, it seems like OGC’s recognition of KML is babelizing the open source geospatial denomination. Will the opensource tent be big enough for the old school standards folks and the KML speaking neogeographers?

  5. Andrew Turner on

    @Kirk, yes – b/c some of us neogeographers have sneaked ourselves into the old-school camp and OGC and are helping use KML more as a leverage for opening the older model of development than vice versa.

  6. Aaron W. VanWieren on

    In my original post I left the type of community purposefully ambiguous as I wanted to get as open answers as possible. Also I was hoping for a more cohesive idea of an overall community as geographers, not just open source. I found your post amusing and very valid, I had not thought of the argument quite so graphically.

    But the point on one language makes allot of sense. What I understand and from my perspective, ESRI has been the dominant and trend setting company in talking and describing GIS for a long time. But now we have OGC and a whole slew of other options, which is babelizing the community. But, in the end, it is not the language of technology we speak, but that of geography itself. I think even neogeographers do in some way without realizing it.

    I realize I definitely need to spend more time reading up on OGC. As an ESRI developer, I have avoided the “open source” realm quite a bit, with only surface interest.

    Aaron W. Vanwieren

  7. Kirk on

    Hi Aaron – Once upon a time an engineer was someone who worked on engines. As technology evolved, they generalized, at first working on things connected to the engines, and eventually on things having nothing to do with engines. Maybe the same thing will happen with geographers – with new technology perhaps geographers will also generalize and end up working in non-spatial dimensions quite different from their traditional domain.

    What I feel geographers are missing is a good abstraction layer. Engineers have maxwell’s equations, the laws of thermodynamics, etc. that allowed them to leave their engines and take on other projects. The gravity model has some traction, but still something is needed. Almost as if the web really makes the need for a grand unified theory a necessity.

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