Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Future roles of a GIS analyst: The problems of cartography

The company I work for is both a water and power utility. Both sides have their own geographic information systems, with parts of IT trying to integrate both systems into one big GIS database. While there are complications on the technical end, let me try to describe some of the issues on such an integration from a cartographic perspective:
  • Clients, usually from one group or the other, are accustom to very specific symbols for specific map features.
  • All of the historic maps from either side have had consistent symbology that match said clients preferences.
  • The two groups symbology clashes - what is the red line; a 70kv line, water main, or a user annotation from someone in the field?
  • The extents of the features clash.
  • A lot of features are not loosely coupled: there are groups where if something is not present it makes no sense, or applications that may require it fail.
  • The labeling becomes very problematic for the same reasons symbols do.
  • Definitions! What does "deactivated" mean exactly across very different features in different groups?
  • There are a truly massive number of features. So many that a given client is not necessarily going to know what they really need.
  • How do you project it? The scales of the datasets vary immensely.
  • What coordinate system - clients have different preferences in this matter, and one has a custom one of their own creation.
This is all without mentioning that there are plenty of subgroups like environmental, telecom, or legal, which have their own customs and requirements. At least for us, I think the role of cartographer will still have a place here for a long time, trying to organize all this stuff for human consumption. I don't think these issues are unique. Nor do I think that they wouldn't exist if there was tighter integration between the two groups that generate the bulk of the geographic data. I think we are on the cusp of a revolution of both location-aware and location gathering technology - and more data requires better means of organizing and displaying it. Some of this can be automated, but not much I think. I have yet to see software that can easily determine if a given map - or web map application - contains the necessary data for its audience and that data is organized in such a way to be legible, queryable to the client's satisfaction, and aesthetically pleasing. ESRI has put a lot of effort into simply automating the placement of labels, but it is by no means perfect and often requires extensive customization. Perhaps Dave Bouwman is right and "GIS analyst" - already a nebulous term - is not a career that will exist in the future. But I fail to see a way to do all of the above without someone dedicated to cartography.

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