Spatial is Indeed Special…but GIS Software Skills will Soon be Obsolete

March 20, 2012 at 11:38 am  •  Posted in Geography by  •  33 Comments

I’m fairly new to the blogosphere and Twitter and most of the other forms of social media so I hope you’ll forgive me for arriving late to the party and digging up relatively old posts.  I read a recent post by James Fee on his Spatially Adjusted blog that referred back to a 2009 blog post arguing that “Spatial is not Special“.  Sorry to be 2.5 years late to comment but if no one else has formed an opposition to this opinion, please allow me to be the first.

If James had titled his post “GIS is not Special”, I wouldn’t have felt compelled to debate, because GIS software is not special, but “spatial” is indeed special.  Here’s why:

Spatial dependence and statistical inference.  If you’re working with spatial data and not accounting for spatial dependence or measuring spatial autocorrelation then you are probably making some major mistakes that could have a significant impact on the accuracy of your results.  There are scads of studies, publications and analyses, academic and otherwise, that probably need to be completely redone and rewritten because the statistical techniques applied assume iid where spatial dependence may have biased the results in an important way.

Spatial error.  Everyone who has been trained to use GIS software should be painfully aware that geocoding is often inaccurate, sometimes wildly inaccurate.  In addition, there are a number of sources of error faced by those who work with spatial data include the modifiable areal unit problem, ecological fallacy, locational fallacy and other problems involving geographic scale that, in my opinion, are uniquely spatial and make spatial analysis a unique branch of data analysis.

There are other factors that could be identified here but I don’t think it’s necessary to list them all in order to effectively argue that spatial is in fact special.  For those who can stomach academic research articles, I would recommend this paper by Luc Anselin if you want to read more.

The key issue may be perspective.  If you’re a programmer or software developer type who works with GIS software components, you’ll probably find at some point that GIS components aren’t really different than other software components and that it’s just another piece of the software development landscape.  This may lead you to incorrectly conclude that there’s nothing special about spatial in general because there’s nothing completely different about GIS software in terms of how it can be used to develop software applications.  However, for those who are *analyzing* spatial data, you had better recognize that spatial is indeed special or you’ll be making rookie mistakes.

I like Don Meltz’s post on this entitled GIS is Dead – Long Live GIS.  Don equates GIS software to word processing software and it’s a good analogy.  GIS software will evolve and become easier and easier to you use.  But just like word processing didn’t make good writers obsolete, easy to use GIS and mapping software won’t make good geospatial analysts obsolete either.

So if you’re considering a GIS career, you might want to reframe the question.  Instead of learning ArcGIS and getting a GISP certificate, I would recommend that you choose one of 4 paths: (1) geospatial or geostatistical analyst, (2) cartographer or visualization design expert, (3) software developer or (4) Geographic Information Scientist.  Or some combination of the four (and an application area of interest wouldn’t hurt either).  If you only train yourself to be a GIS user you’ll be in the same boat as a professional word processor before too long.

To learn more, read my new post entitled: Spatial Career Guide for Undergrads Currently Studying GIS – Curriculum Suggestions for 6 Geospatial Career Paths


  1. QG / March 20, 2012 at 9:16 pm / Reply

    Interesting post! I do have an issue with the “GIS/word processor” analogy, however. I liken GIS more to statistical programs, like SPSS or Stata. Many professionals won’t learn these programs (and don’t need to), whereas nearly all professionals can (and need to) operate a word processing program. Stats packages, like a GIS, do however require a certain level of technical knowledge just to get them up and running- and require significant, advanced knowledge to realize their full potential. To get an analyst job, however, you’d better know how to operate at least one of these statistical programs — and I’m increasingly seeing ArcGIS sitting alongside SPSS et al. in job advertisements.

    As such I think the real future of GIS is as an analysis tool (among other analysis tools) for a wide variety of professions. GIS will no longer be proprietary to the “GIS Analyst;” rather, there will be a growing demand for professionals in health care, business, etc. who have the ability to apply GIS in their own work (I have such a job). And just like you should understand the principles of statistical analysis before running a regression in Stata, you’ll need to have a firm grounding in the principles of geography — as you suggest — when performing spatial analyses in ArcGIS.

    One more thing- go Ducks!

    • justinholman / March 21, 2012 at 8:16 am / Reply

      QG, thanks for adding your thoughts on this. I agree that stats software packages may be a better analog but I like the word processing comparison because I’m hoping it might serve as a wake up call to undergrad types who think that learning GIS is all they need to do to launch a career. Thanks again and Go Ducks! Cheers, Justin

  2. Alister Nairn / March 21, 2012 at 4:05 am / Reply

    I pretty much agree with this comment, good stuff. As spatial professionals we need to understand why spatial is special. What annoys me is when IT people design mapping applications that have no clue about presenting spatial information correctly. Cartography/visualisation it seems is very much undervalued.

    • justinholman / March 21, 2012 at 8:24 am / Reply

      Alister, thanks for this comment. I totally agree re the importance of Cartography/Visualization. Easy-to-use map making software doesn’t necessarily translate into good cartography.

  3. Dale Loberger / March 21, 2012 at 9:08 am / Reply

    Very thought provoking. I agree that there is much about “spatial” that really is “special”. It is the concepts of geography (in the very old sense of the discipline) that are key, but even concepts require tools. I used to use the Word Processing analog as it applies to using GIS for mapping. When “typing pools” still existed in business, letters were written long hand and given over to a mechanization process. Maps were treated that way after the advent of GIS as well, but my writing style improved once I began leveraging the word processor not just as mechanization, but a new process for composing. GIS goes further, like statistics, in providing tools to analyze data – but proper usage of those tools is critical. That is what good software provides. The skills required for a good geographer are many and shouldn’t require excessive programming and IT knowledge, again good software tools should minimize that need. It shouldn’t matter if a successful company provides that software – well actually, I’d prefer that to supporting my own. Your closing advice is very appropriate.

    • justinholman / March 21, 2012 at 9:21 am / Reply

      Thanks for the comment, Dale! I should probably re-title the post “Spatial is indeed special but GIS software skills are now a commodity”. The word processing analogy is good for shock value but probably a bit overstated. But students who focus only on learning ArcGIS need to know that this won’t be enough to sustain a career.

  4. josephkerski / March 21, 2012 at 11:03 am / Reply

    Thanks Justin. I’ve long thought of success with GIS as hinging on 3 things – content knowledge about geography (topics, including natural hazards, population, etc., systems, including watersheds, the carbon cycle, climate, ecoregions, etc, and themes, including scale and resolution); geographic skills (including critical thinking about data, how to run GIS procedures, how to format and use spatial data), and the geographic or spatial perspective. I also have a “top 5 skills to be successful with GIS” presentation online through American Sentinel University and I named “curiosity” as the #1 skill. I also have a chapter in the new Practicing Geography book from Pearson subtitled “if everyone is using some geotechnology, does that mean that everyone is a geographer?” And, my answer, in the chapter, was “no”. All this is to say that success with GIS goes beyond knowing how to operate the software, because the software doesn’t give all the answers. The human operator is so important. And about the software, as you identified, it is rapidly evolving to the web.

  5. Kevin Gibbs / March 21, 2012 at 2:14 pm / Reply

    Justin: Good to hear you posting. I agree. For a while now I’ve heard it’s easier to teach a programmer GIS than a geographer to program. However, most of what I see the programmers doing is simply placing dots on a map.

    Dots on a map isn’t GIS. The true power of geographic information systems is being able to take aspatial data, make it spatial and then for those special spatial relationships to drive decision making where aspatial data can’t compete. In other words, the spatial analysis of the data is the highest evolution of geographic data. I’m not just talking about choropleth maps either. There is a whole world of spatial tools that allow more science than taking the dots and calculating which census tract they fall within.

    This is the untapped potential of GIS.

    • justinholman / March 21, 2012 at 2:17 pm / Reply

      Kevin, good to hear from you! Thanks for the comment – couldn’t agree more. Perhaps we should start referring to ourselves as the “spatial” community rather than the GIS community?

  6. itay / March 21, 2012 at 2:53 pm / Reply

    There is no mention of the real threat to GIS and that is Spatial ETL.

    • justinholman / March 21, 2012 at 4:37 pm / Reply

      Thanks for the comment. I don’t really see Spatial ETL as a unique threat – just part of a software/automation improvement process. I remember hearing that GML was going to change everything. I’m still waiting. I could certainly be wrong and time will tell but ETL sounds like just another passing fad with an acronym to me. Thanks again for the comment. Best, Justin

  7. Paul Wickman / March 21, 2012 at 8:01 pm / Reply

    Good stuff, Justin, and lots of great comments.

    I’m giving a presentation at O’Reilly Where 2012 in a couple of weeks entitled, “Just Because You Can Doesn’t Mean You Should”. I’ll be touching on many of these same ideas; pitfalls of John Q. Public now applying spatial analysis in hap-hazard fashion, the future of the GIS Professional and how the university system is turnout out GIS Technicians who can’t find jobs.

    • justinholman / March 21, 2012 at 9:01 pm / Reply

      Thanks, Paul! Please feel free to post a link to the presentation if you’d like to share. Sorry that I’ll miss the live presentation. Cheers, Justin

  8. Slaven Kobola / March 22, 2012 at 2:04 am / Reply

    I am glad that this article and comments have opened a discussion about GIS as well as “spatial” sciences. What I believe is that the mentioned components are very much interwoven, and as such they cannot be observed separately. For example, I have found a lot of professionals who hold titles of “GIS something”, but still do not know how to do certain things via GIS software. The same goes for “spatial something”, where the holders of these positions and/or titles still do not have much idea what the results mean spatially or otherwise. And finally, there is a lot of decision makers, who happen to be neither in the GIS nor spatial domains, who unfortunately make decisions about both fields. As such, GIS and/or spatial domains are still in development, and it will take some time until a full understanding will be reached about the importance of GIS and/or spatial positions by all parties that are involved in it, i.e., EVERYBODY. Furthermore, I liked the original comparison of GIS software with word processor; actually, I usually say to people that knowing MS Word will not make them good writers, and accordingly, knowing GIS will not make them good spatial specialists. Of course that GIS (software) is a tool that one has to know when in GIS and/or spatial professions, however, one also has to build quite a lot on it in order to become a good GIS and/or spatial professional.

    • justinholman / March 22, 2012 at 8:11 am / Reply

      Great comment – thanks Slaven! Love this quote: “knowing MS Word will not make them good writers, and accordingly, knowing GIS will not make them good spatial specialists”. Thanks again for taking time to share your thoughts. Best, Justin

    • Paul Wickman / March 22, 2012 at 11:57 am / Reply

      Well said, Slaven. I believe this as always stemmed from GIS being a highly overloaded term. Geographic Information System… It is, all in one term referring to software, methodologies, data, concepts, processes. And in this regard, everybody has their own pre-conceived notion of what GIS means to them.

      • justinholman / March 22, 2012 at 12:07 pm / Reply

        Great point, Paul! There’s also the GIS – software vs science debate to further complicate matters.

  9. Geoff Johnson / March 22, 2012 at 9:22 am / Reply

    An interesting article, but isn’t that true of any career? If you just stay in the same field forever you wil become outdated. In every career there is a changing landscape, and you need to stay up with the curve, prefereably ahead of it.

    • justinholman / March 22, 2012 at 9:40 am / Reply

      Geoff – I agree that you have to keep your skills current or you will become outdated in just about any profession. The somewhat unique problem in GIS is that many people have equated knowledge of a particular software package with a career. When the technology changes I worry that those people will be at a disadvantage and feel like someone pulled the carpet out from underneath them. Thanks for the comment!

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  11. Christian / March 29, 2012 at 12:10 pm / Reply

    Thanks for putting this out there. For a long time I was working with certain software just to get experience with the package and get the right company/software/extension name on my resume. Was it really the right solution for my problem? Maybe, but my focus was on my future marketability not on the proper technique to solve the problem.

    Here is an experience I had during a phone interview:

    Interviewer: “Tell me about your experience with ArcGIS?”
    Me: “Basic functionality (viewing, analyzing, editing data), ArcObjects programming, Model Builder processes, Python scripting, extensions, blah, blah, blah”.

    Later in the interview:

    Interviewer: “Are you familiar with the ESRI System?”
    Me (confused): “Huh? What do you mean? I went over my ArcGIS experience earlier.”
    Interviewer: “Oh, that’s just a trick question to verify what you said before”
    Me (to myself): “I’m not sure I’m interested anymore.”

    I hope hiring managers and HR start taking fundamental knowledge into account when reviewing resumes, not particular software names.

    • Justin / March 29, 2012 at 2:27 pm / Reply

      Christian – whenever possible you want to speak directly to the hiring manager. HR is simply functioning as a gatekeeper to screen candidates and narrow the field so don’t be dissuaded. If you’re stuck with an HR rep you can have fun by asking technical questions about how they use ArcGIS or whatever to solve problems. If the HR person is knowledgeable you’ll learn something, both about the job and about the company. If not, they’ll probably stop throwing stupid “trick” questions at you. Anyway, thanks for the comment! Cheers, Justin

  12. Lachezar Filchev / April 5, 2012 at 3:56 pm / Reply

    What I like more in this post is the Luc Anselin’s convincing power in spatial matters. Indeed, the Spatial analysis is the core of any decent GIS system. However, narrowing down the GIS definition to spatial analysis only means to defeat the entire GIS for the sake of change. I think that GIS as a discipline is not worn out at all, and It has a lot to give to the society. What I see however, is that we no longer have clear GIS definition, as recently the blog posts for GIS are inundated with the remote sensing matters and terminology. If anyone has to ‘fear’ of something is that GIS very easily migrates to the field of RS. This only shows that the disciplines are very close to one another, and moreover, that they are complimentary. So the present career path of the GIS specialist do have to include also RS knowledge, and viceversa. This is clearly shown by the two recent ‘merges’ in the corporate world. What I point out are the ArcGIS and ENVI, and ERDAS and Intergraph integration.

    • Justin / April 5, 2012 at 5:18 pm / Reply

      Lachezar – thanks for the comment. I think remote sensing creates great opportunity for those within the geospatial world who know how to analyze raster data. But, to me, remote sensing is a source of data and not a field of study that competes with GIScience/spatial analysis. Best, Justin

  13. Thach Pham / June 14, 2013 at 3:43 pm / Reply

    Thank you for the post.

    This is the updated link of Don’s post:

  14. Pingback: GIS on Campus | eSpatially New York

  15. Ali / September 14, 2014 at 4:26 pm / Reply

    Hello Dr Justin,

    I would like to tell me about the best universities in remote sensing (RS) geography in the United States.

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