Geography 2.0: Virtual Globes

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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Comments on naive geography, part 1

For Dan Montello's Cognitive Issues in GIScience class here at UCSB, I was asked to write two short essays, "for and against" the use of naive geography in geospatial software design. Normally, these things disappear into an archive on my hard drive, but since virtual globes are referenced a few times, I thought I'd post them.

Comments Supporting Naive Geography
by Alan Glennon

When new users are introduced to GIS for the first time, they are likely to have two questions: what does GIS do; and how do I make it work? After the user has become proficient enough to extract a solution from a GIS, an additional question might be: how reliable is the output? The answer to each of these questions falls largely to design decisions made by software developers. These considerations of functionality, usability, and accuracy play a significant role in whether a GIS will include or exclude certain users.

Toward designing GIS that is “easily accessible to a large range of users,” and, “can be used without major training… to solve day-to-day tasks,” Egenhofer and Mark (1995) propose integrating “naive” or common sense conceptions of geography into GIS design. In order for a GIS to gain acceptance and use, the answers to each of the three new user questions must have intelligible answers. Thus, a major contribution of integrating common sense geographical knowledge into GIS would be to increase lay understanding of functionality, usability, and accuracy. Though all three issues are pertinent to furthering GIS design with “naive” geographic concepts, for this essay, only functionality—reflected by the question, “what does GIS do”—is discussed.

Because new users will either accept or reject technology based on perceived utility, examining functionality appears to be one of the most direct methods for assessing the relevance of the naive geography design philosophy for GIS. The expectation is that companies that use naive geography design will have a larger user base, or, at least, a larger user group testing and experimenting with the software. Sustaining users beyond their initial experimentation would rely on usability, output, and accuracy.

Design Philosophy
The notion of “naive” geography was introduced by GIScience academics; however, GIS software is overwhelmingly designed by the private sector. That the naive geography philosophy has begun to be embraced by designers is reflected in recent remarks by private industry leaders. At the 2006 Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers, Tim McGrath, a Microsoft project manager, cited Egenhofer and Mark directly, stating that the Microsoft team was working to design highly accessible software, “by following the notion of naive geography” (McGrath 2006). Similarly, in late 2005, Michael Jones, the Chief Technical Officer of Google Earth, stated that his team “sees an opportunity to foster entry level users through simple viewing and community authoring tools, giving them a path into a realm that has been dominated by very complex and specialized applications.” He goes on to say that the Google Earth design team works to “think like the users,” in order to make a product that “regular people can use” (Jones 2005).

Functionality Documentation
The question, “what does GIS do,” describes the software’s basic functionality, including the mechanisms for spatial data storage, query, and representation. Basic to the notion of including “naive” geography into GIS design, users must be able to understand the technology’s capabilities. Consider the list of GIS functionality provided by the companies ESRI and Google. From their websites, Figures 1 and 2 show a bulleted list of capabilities of the ESRI and Google software (ESRI 2006a; Google 2006). The first three capabilities of ESRI’s ArcInfo include functionality to: “build powerful geoprocessing models,” “perform vector overlay,” and “generate events over features.” Alternatively, the Google Earth software allows users to: “type in an address and zoom right in,” “get driving directions,” and “tilt and rotate the view to see 3D terrain and buildings.”

Although ESRI’s ArcInfo arguably offers more powerful GIS functionality, its words and phrases are highly specialized. For instance, the word geoprocessing cannot be found in a standard 2006 dictionary ( 2006). An Internet search for the phrase “perform vector overlay” yields only GIS-related links, and the phrase “generate events over features,” yields only the ESRI website. In contrast, from Google’s list, a web search for the phrase, “get driving directions,” returns over five million disparate commercial and noncommercial sources. A web search for the other Google feature phrases yields sites that include news outlets, individuals, schools, and businesses. Most of the sites do not specialize in GIS, but reflect ongoing “lay” discussions of Google Earth. From their engineering remarks and website documentation, Google appears to be embracing a naive geography design philosophy. Conversely, ESRI appears to be following an alternative philosophy highlighting the complexity and powerful functionality of its ArcInfo software.

User Numbers
Exact user numbers generally are guarded by individual companies as proprietary secrets. Nevertheless, companies that have more fully embraced naive design concepts appear to be attracting a much larger user base. For instance, ESRI, a company founded in 1969, has traditionally been the leader in GIS software. On its website, ESRI (2006b) boasts one million users in 200 countries. Crampton (2006) asserts that by making its software much more accessible, Google has effectively staged a coup of ESRI’s GIS dominance. On June 12, 2006, less than a year after its launch, Google announced that their “simple, fun” solution, that “regular people can use” has had 100 million installations. As such, Crampton argues that “…Google Earth has consistently more mindshare than GIS.” Recent developments show that ESRI has begun to recognize the power of naive geography. ESRI claims that its upcoming software offering, ArcGIS Explorer “aims to be a ‘GIS for everyone’,” and “is easy to use and does not require training” (Maguire 2006; ESRI 2006c).

Incorporating common sense conceptions of the geographical world into GIS will make the software more usable, thus adding meaning and value. As multibillion dollar companies like Google and Microsoft formally declare that they are designing spatial software to be understandable and usable for regular users, the impact of the naive geography design philosophy is becoming unmistakable. Egenhofer and Mark’s naive geography goal of making GIS “accessible to a larger range of users” is underway.

References The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. 2006. Geoprocessing. (accessed 3 May 2006).

Crampton, Jeremy. 2006. “Critical GIS: Map Hacks, Mashups, and the Geo-web challenge GIS.” GeoWorld, January 2006.

Egenhofer, M. and D. Mark. 1995. Naive geography. In Spatial Information Theory: a theoretical basis for GIS, volume 988 of Lecture Notes in Computer Science, ed. A. Frank and W. Kuhn, 1-16. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.

ESRI. 2006a. ArcInfo.  (accessed 3 May 2006).

ESRI. 2006b. GIS in our world. (accessed 3 May 2006).

ESRI. 2006c. ArcGIS Explorer FAQs. (accessed 3 May 2006).

Google. 2006. Google Earth: 3D interface to the planet. (accessed 3 May 2006).

Jones, Michael T. 2005. Google Earth. Resources from the CEOA Symposium on Science & Technology in Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS): The Role of Universities, University of California, San Diego, 22 November 2005.

Maguire, David. 2006. ArcGIS Explorer at AAG. (accessed 3 May 2006).

McGrath, Tim. 2006. Microsoft MapPoint: The Power of Location. Paper presented at the Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting, Chicago, Illinois, 7-11 March 2006.