The MAGIC of Crowds: The 12th Biennial MidAmerica GIS Symposium
I had the pleasure of spending this week with some very bright and exciting people at the biennial meeting of the MidAmerica GIS Consortium in Kansas City. I know what you’re thinking, and you would be correct: there’s no party like a GIS party. (For anyone who might not be aware of the acronym, we are talking about Geographic Information Systems.)
Perhaps no single moment this week brought home to me how far we’ve come in using information and imagery, as the evening social held at the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial. The “Great War” (an oxymoron, I know) produced an estimated 37 million casualties; the Influenza Pandemic of 1917 saw millions more deaths. Both of these tragedies could have been greatly mitigated had the governments of the time been able to view, model, and tie together disparate pieces of information into a unifying, visually accessible whole, enabling them to plan and prepare.
Of course both tragedies could have been avoided if humans could just learn to live and play better together, but that’s an article for another time. In 1914 it was inconceivable to expect high-resolution, highly accurate spatial data in anything close to “real time”. The world we live in today not only expects it, but demands it…and on our phones. The developers and providers of geospatial services understand this, but are struggling like everyone else to: 1) develop ways to take advantage of the new capabilities and 2) explain it to the executives and policy makers in ways that help them make better decisions.
The clarion call of MAGIC this year is taking advantage of crowds and clouds. Crowdsourcing is a term for using lots (a technical term!) of volunteers to provide information in ways that can be useful to a larger group. ESRI, the GIS software developer, is emphasizing a model they call VGI (Volunteer Geographical Information). This is an acknowledgement that the “feet on the ground” do as well or better at providing accurate information—and in times of crisis, do a better job keeping track of rapid change.
Even when we are not in crisis, however, we are in a state of constant flux—and there are many layers of useful information beyond what corporations and governments are collecting. This has profound implications on how we, as individuals, understand and interact with our surroundings. It’s exciting to see that this democratization of information is being embraced by civic and business leaders. This means that information in the tiniest nooks and crannies of our communities is being valued and made available for even larger use.
The next big push then, is to find a place for this information to live. This is where the cloud comes in. Cloud computing or internet-based computing is a distributed or shared resource available on demand anywhere a connection to the internet exists. All the data, and in some cases the software to manipulate the data, is stored in bits and bytes outside of the personal computer or mobile device, but it is all accessible. All the time.
The new GIS tools being developed—the new society being developed—will take advantage of the clouds and crowds to make more and better information more readily accessible.
The smart and sincere people at this conference have built their lives and careers around getting information to the masses for good decision- and policy-making as well as planning. The tools are now becoming so easy to use (Lawrie Jordan of ESRI calls this the “illusion of simplicity”) that the masses can make good decisions based on this information.
If these tools had been available at the turn of the last century, maybe today we would be celebrating the lives saved instead of grimly remembering the lives lost. Let’s all try to do more with the opportunities and technologies available to us to improve our planet.