Posted by: SDGIS | September 15, 2011

The World is Not Flat. It is More Hyper- and Hypo- Geographic Than in the Past.

This is not a rebuke of Thomas Friedman’s seminal book along the lines of Joseph Stiglitz‘s criticism. Mr. Stigletz leveled his charge against the major concepts in the book, while my concerns are related to geography in particular.

Obviously, Thomas Friedman didn’t intend the name of his book to be taken literally. “The World is Flat”, is mildly-provocative shorthand for “We think differently about geographic relationships than we used to.” The question Mr. Friedman fails to answer is: How do we think differently? Recent technological advances have made it so that some parts of our lives, where geography (location) used to be important, are no longer consequential. The used book ships from Florida or Washington; who cares. Undoubtedly, this book was purchased online. The world is flat.

Powell's City of Books

I remember how excited my parents were when our neighborhood bookstore, Books & Things of Briarcliff Manor NY, opened a second larger store a couple of miles away. Since then we have moved, the world has changed around us, and Books and Things closed it’s doors.

Now my parents live in Portland, Oregon. My mother doesn’t buy books online. She drives downtown to Powell’s City of books, probably pays more for parking than shipping, walks the aisle to find her book, and waits in line. Powell’s is the largest independent new and used bookstore in the world and occupies a full city block in the heart of downtown Portland. You might know Powell’s also has a very productive online presence, but my mom wants the building, the coffee, and the customers reading in the aisles to be there. She knows if the building is empty and the books are being delivered by UPS then Powell’s will either go the route of Books and Things or move to a big warehouse in the burbs. Either scenario would be sad.

In most cases, the geographic relationship between ourselves and the book is no longer consequential.

Mainframe Computer

Recently, I was asked, “What are the two most influential trends in the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) industry.” My response was probably similar to most in the professional Information Technology community; mobile technologies and cloud computing. These are both disruptive technologies, but how? How are they changing business? How are they changing our lives? I’d like to build upon Thomas Friedman’s concepts and address these technologies as they relate to geography.

Cloud computing is a notoriously confusing concept so please bear with me. In the past we had mainframe computers. These computers were largely used for resource intensive tasks. Along came the less powerful personal computer (PC) and networks. As these networks became faster, more reliable and robust the client/server relationship was born. This is where a client machine (your desktop/laptop/smartphone ect) asks a question of a particular server, the server expects the question and sends a response back to the client.

Client/Server relationship

The client and the server are having a conversation. At first these servers were located physically close to the client. Often in the same building or at least in the same town. Our networks which handle the traffic between clients and servers have become so robust that servers are released from the geographic ties to the client. Now that geography (proximity to the client) doesn’t play as large a role in determining the location of the server, issues such as electricity costs, taxes, incentives and regulations play center stage in server farm site selection.

To build on this concept, the power dynamic between client and server has shifted. Software, such as Microsoft Word, no longer needs to run on the client (your desktop). It can now run “in the cloud.” The functionality you are familiar with on your desktop, is now provided as part of the conversation between your computer (the client) and servers located across the globe. This is an example of SAAS or software as a service. Cloud Computing has become hypo-geographic. Cloud computing is a disruptive technology because the location of the server is now much less important than it has been in the past.

Let me address another unfortunate vocabulary issue. Smartphones are not phones. They are small form-factor computers. Internal GPS gives us directions from “My Location” to wherever I am headed. Your location is shared via tweets, and other twitterers physically close to your location can find your tweets. Other apps, such as foursquare, help you check into locations so your friends can find you. If your ipad\iphone is stolen you can find it’s location on a map. There are a myriad of ways to find local restaurants, bars or a free wireless connection close to your current location. There has been a lot of debate over who is allowed to view or analyze the mobile devices (AKA your) location information and for what ends.

This is new. The mobile device location is a proxy for your location. Desktops generally don’t move. You move to them at your office, home, ect. Laptops can move with you, but generally don’t move everywhere with you. Desktops and laptops generally do not have GPS although there are ways to determine locations. Unless you are a gargantuan dork you have 1 mobile device and it travels everywhere with you. Mobile devices are hyper-geographic. Mobile technologies are a disruptive technology because the location of the mobile device is now much more important than it has been in the past.

Everyone is up in arms over who has access to the location of our mobile devices, but no one cares whether Google’s servers are located in Washington or Florida.

To summarize the analogy:

Bookstore : Server :: Book : Data :: UPS : Network :: You : Client

At Evari GIS Consulting we understand how trends and changes influence the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) industry.  We provide solutions based upon proven technologies which utilize these concepts. We recently deployed a solution for the City of San Diego which was not feasible just a few years ago. It is only through a combination of recent advances in GIS Server technology (Esri ArcGIS Server), cloud computing (Amazon Web Services), Mobile devices (Apple Ipad 2) and mobile networks traffic speeds (Verizon’s 4g LTE network) that the solution is possible. In the next few posts I will go into detail on each of these technologies, how the decision to use these technologies was made, and the role they play in making this project successful.

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