"Designer GIS Fashions a New Era"

The following text is Gil Castle's final draft of the real estate column appearing in Business Geographics, May 1996

Copyright © 1996 GIS World, Inc.

A decent desktop mapping package has dozens of functions; a full-blown GIS, literally hundreds. Seriously, now, how many of those do you use -- or even know about? Ever wish you could have a GIS that only contained what you need, and the heck with all that other stuff cluttering up the tool bar?

Well lucky you, lucky everyone, because this is the dawning of the age of the "Designer GIS." (History take note: I want full credit for inventing the term, along with designating my beloved San Francisco "Yuppie Camelot.") Designer GIS is not a garment label, but soon will be the fashion...

So, what's the buzz here? The trend in GIS software, like the trends in word-processing, data base management, spreadsheets, and other fundamental computer functions, has been toward "bloat ware." Bless their hearts, the vendors have tried to stay competitive by packing ever more capabilities into their products. "They got bells, we got bells. They got whistles, we got whistles. OLE!"

The trouble with the trend is that bloat ware gets us further and further away from what most of us really want--a "Just Do It" button on our computer. Don't make me have to learn a lot of computer syntax, or retrieve and save files, or jump back and forth between different windows on the computer screen. Give me one button to click: Just Do It! Who wants to waste time or money on anything more?

Vendors know this, but can't make money by programming, selling, and supporting a zillion different types of Just Do It buttons. (Since we all have different jobs, we all want different Just Do It buttons. Shoot, each of us wants different Just Do It buttons for the different tasks each of us does during the day, starting bright and early with a "Fetch Coffee" button.)

Instead, the vendors have tried to help by providing scripting languages (Avenue, MapBasic, Atlas Script, etc.) so we can program our own Just Do It buttons. The trouble with that trend is that now we now have to learn not one but two types of complicated software--GIS and the scripting language--and we still are stuck with more software capabilities than we need. This is better?

Okay, okay, enough suspense. The vendors are coming through for us. Pre-dawn for the Designer GIS can probably be pegged at the announcements during the last year or so by Strategic Mapping, Inc. (SMI) and MapInfo that small portions of their software would be incorporated into the next releases of Lotus 1-2-3 and Excel, respectively. Actual dawn, i.e., the first rays of sun highlighting our bleary eyed, upturned faces--is occurring right about now, as I write this six miles above the Midwest on the first day of Spring (another metaphor, all right!) in March 1996. Now listen up: Several vendors are unbundling their software, so that we can purchase just the GIS functions we want, resident on our computers or as Java modules on Internet, activated by an interface we create from scratch.

How's that again? I'll use ESRI as the best example (that is, the one I currently understand best). ESRI has announced MapObjects. Essentially, GIS functions--MapObjects--will be included in the list of commands available in Visual Basic. Visual Basic is a real popular program for (relatively) quickly and easily designing and building an interface; the user draws on the screen whatever buttons, scroll bars, toggles, text, symbols, etc. that he/she wants to see when running an application, wherever he/she wants them, and then points-and-clicks to link software commands to each of the buttons. With MapObjects, along with the conventional menu of software functions that can be linked to each button will be GIS capabilities. The user employs only the GIS functions he/she wants, accessed via an interface that he/she created. Designer GIS! Just Do It!

What's the good-news-bad-news about building your own GIS "killer app" in this manner? The good news: You get what you want. Conversely, you don't have to mess around with or pay for anything you don't want.

The bad news: This technology is Barely Beta, so who knows how well it's going to work? Not all GIS functions will be available for building a Designer GIS, at least not immediately. You still have to know what GIS functions are available and what can be done with each; (by analogy, a carpenter who only understands hammers is not going to as proficient as one who understands hammers, saws, drills, clamps, etc.) The GIS vendor probably won't be able to provide much customer support for your custom application. And you might have to hire a programmer or subcontractor to develop your system, if you don't want to learn Visual Basic.

As specifically related to real estate professionals, the new paradigm will be welcomed by institutional investment advisors, large brokerage firms, data vendors, and other market segments that have already significantly embraced GIS. Industry players with a mixed record for adopting GIS--banks, medium and small brokerage firms, appraisers, consultants, etc.--will still have to decide when they will jump into GIS, but at least will have a broader and cheaper spectrum of technology options available. Finally, would-be-dinosaurs of all sizes and species who would never have invested time, money, or intellect in bloat ware now have a reprieve; their needs will be met by an ever expanding cadre of free-lance programmers who can now more cost-effectively develop customized, dinosaur-friendly apps from libraries of unbundled GIS functions.

Finally, everyone will benefit from the emergence of limited, single-purpose GIS modules integrated with appropriate data sets on the Internet and other on-line real estate data sources. As an example, today on Internet anyone can input a street address for any property in the nation and view a TIGER-like map of the site (at http://www.MapQuest.com). Whether free, rented, purchased, or otherwise provided over the telephone lines, these MapLets/Applets/MapObjects/whatevers will fulfill the ever increasing demands of novices and power users alike for I-want-it-my-way GIS functionality.