By James Fee

SpatialTau - GIS is Hard





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Thank you so much for reading my newsletter. This is issue 5 and one I was going to make the first issue. But I churned on it a little bit more and writing it made me fell much better about how I view GIS. Remember, if you are tired of being my face every week, scroll to then bottom of this message and click unsubscribe. Otherwise, forward on to your friends and let me know your thoughts. The feedback I receive is going to become issues moving forward. Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter or my blog or just reply to this email.

I get DMs in Twitter all the time from people who want to know how to get better at GIS. What’s the one thing I can tell them to help them become better at what they do?  Years ago, I tried to answer this with a solution, “Learn Python” or something like that. But that’s not helpful because while learning Python sure doesn’t hurt, it won’t make you better at GIS. All these years I’ve tried to do one thing for my clients, “Make GIS Easy”. But what I’ve learned and what I’ve tried to teach people is GIS isn’t easy and it never will be. It’s among the hardest things any of us will ever do in our lives, and that’s perfectly OK.
The origin of this story is lost to me and the truth of it has probably changed over time, but I’ll share it with you because it really helps frame my thinking on this matter. Years Scott Morehouse at Esri was asked why is ArcGIS so hard to use. His response, “It is scientific software. It has to be hard to use.” Now I’m sure this story isn’t exactly verbatim, but I can see Scott saying this. Up until a year or two ago, I used to share this anecdote as proof that the only thing wrong with GIS is how the software is written. But over time my thoughts on this has changed greatly and Scott is absolutely right.
GIS is hard, like putting a lion in your sidecar.
GIS is hard, like putting a lion in your sidecar.
Can GIS be easy, for sure. You can do so much with so little and get some great results. But anything complex becomes cumbersome. This is because there so many forks in the road you can take during analysis and get the same answer. We could agree on one way to do things, but we all know how much we care about those GIS best practices documents. No, it’s this freedom to take our analysis any direction is what makes GIS so powerful. But it is also what makes ArcGIS, QGIS, PostGIS, FME and anything else complex. You can become an expert at any of those products and they become easy, but the process is not.
We pride ourselves on showing how complex we can make our analysis. I remember sharing AMLs with people to show how crazy our maps could be or seeing an FME Workbench have so many connections all over the place you can’t even read it. We love the complexity; we love the documentation of what we did. Proof that what I just did is amazing, and nobody does it quite like I do. Twitter and blogs are littered with people showing how easy something is. Just 3 lines of SQL and you can do what takes Jack a month to do in 15 seconds. Those blog posts are intimidating. Just because I tell you I can do something amazing just using Turf.js, doesn’t make it easy for anyone. 15 lines of JavaScript and I’ve replaced $15,000 of software. Bah, baloney.
As I said, I’ve built my career on making the complex easy. And for those small jobs on rails that can be solved by a simple drop down, I do a damn good job. But most GIS, even the parts I hide are complex works of art that shouldn’t be discarded because they aren’t written in Go or use a JSON object for storage. No, they need to be embraced and loved, because they are how we all learn. I used to consider GIS very hard and I did some of my most amazing work back then. The tools and libraries have become easier for sure. I just watched a video of ArcGIS Pro and was impressed with some of the design choices. And I the future is only going to get better.
So, embrace GIS being hard. Spatial isn’t special but GIS is. It really has driven the world into a new frontier, one where location is important, and analysis is a pillar on how important decisions are made. You can be assured if someone asks me what I do, I’ll tell them I do something hard, but simply amazing.
GitHub - nytimes/covid-19-data: An ongoing repository of data on coronavirus cases and deaths in the U.S.
New York State COVID-19 Technology SWAT Team | The State of New York
GitHub - nychealth/coronavirus-data
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James Fee
James Fee @jamesmfee

Spatial, workflows and technology

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