on Expertise,
Web GIS,
and Open Source

Ever been subjected to that awkward moment where someone was dying to impress you about how superbly expert he is about something but he ended up doing the total opposite? Around five months ago, somebody messaged me on Facebook about my Facebook status/announcement for a potential programming-mapping project. He said that he can just work for my company as a moonlighting programmer to customize the utility app, because it was “so simple” and he was bored with having mastered his job already.


Four words flashed in my head that instant: Ang yabang naman nito!!!

(Two other mapping guys a hundred times better than him with skills and programming prowess inquired about the project respectfully, and became our company’s partners beyond this initial project.)

I actually thought highly of him before this incident. When I told him that my client is using a customized app that does not use his tool of choice, ArcGIS 10, he immediately withdrew his offer and said that he cannot do it given that it’s not going to be implemented through the software that he knows like the back of his hand.

His arrogance has been extinguished almost instantly and he suddenly typed in “GTG,” that he’s busy with managerial stuff for his work, as if I was wasting his time. I wanted to call him up and LOL him like crazy to drown out the awkwardness. Instead, I said “OK, good luck with your managerial stuff!”

Today, five months later, he is an introduction to a long blog post about expertise and mapping thoughts.

This tiny event led me to ponder along with other ideas for five months: How can one be an authentic expert in something if you do not probe in the depths, if you do not have the thirst to work from the ground up and see what you find? How can you call yourself an expert programmer if you do not have the versatility to work from the very foundations of what you do?

(And he had the temerity to market himself as an expert in this industry. I feel embarrassed for the true experts who don’t concern themselves with such things just to get attention from other people.)

I do not know if this idea is something that comes across to some app users, but I have been picking my brain constantly regarding an issue of how ease of use can sometimes make end users too lazy for their own good. I cannot help but feel that ease of use in software, while it is marketed as a time saver and the logical way to go for solutions, actually trades our ability to empower ourselves and innovate on our own devices.

When you are given an easy to click interface or pre-packaged piece of application that you only need to pay for and upgrade annually, you live  with the precious cost and accept that you will never have full knowledge of how exactly the system works from ground up.

Some people are content with this “restricted” kind of knowledge and call it expertise.  But try changing the application and then these “experts” will no longer know how to do things because they’re stuck with a single way of doing things.

It makes them extremely inflexible and ignorant.  True think tanks of this planet are not afraid to work with the barest bones to build an entire body or system even if it takes an entire lifetime’s work.  True think tanks tinker with their boundaries and are versatile.

And most all, think tanks don’t brag then cower in shame if their tool of choice is not available on the table. They rise to the occasion and find solutions with dogged persistence.

I find that when I overuse easy to install and easy to use apps, I get somewhat “dumber” although I accomplish things that may astound an unsuspecting passer-by. I get to appreciate the shortcuts more when I know how it works in the background, if I can see the “skeleton” of the main thing being sold, if I can take things apart and understand why this certain function crashed, and fully understand why this particular command did not generate the results that I want.

I do not know why, but this is how I learn that I have truly learned. And this is the standard by which I hold people who call themselves intelligent or good at what they do. And based on this standard, I am a total beginner to mapping and programming. I love it well enough to post every considerable thing I can write about it, but I still have a LONG WAY to go.

In the interests of saving time, we occasionally delude ourselves into thinking that the expensive and user friendly software empowers us to do more for less. In fact, it makes you dependent to a brand to sustain your skill set.

Living in the third world country, I find that the growing community of open source GIS developers as a resourceful and cost-efficient alternative to branded moguls is a very promising one. I am not yet as good as the least of them, but I support them and I want to be like them.

Long live Open Source. Programming is king.


(image credits to Engr. Ranel O. Padon)

It’s like when I personally discovered that I can style my clothes without succumbing to brands, that a Php 10,000 get-up can be reduced to Php 1,000 if you open your mind for saving the little wads in your wallet. It’s really a matter of perspective and willingness to be open to new ideas that make the most revolutionary ideas.

Despite not blooming fully as a seasoned person in the practice, I have realized that I can be an excellent GIS specialist without being impoverished with maintenance costs of premium software. To be fair, branded GIS software does provide the ease of use compared to open source.

But if you are interested enough in GIS to give it your time and working attention, you can take the extra time to make the free version work for you  as well as or even sometimes better than the paid version that people have marketed for the longest time without challenge.

To balance, I still use expensive software but I try my best to step out of the shortcuts and understand the principles behind the shortcuts that the software provides. It makes life more meaningful that way as a worker.

I know that I have posted a lot about GIS software lately, particularly ArcGIS 10. I have come to respect the very easy user interface provided by ArcGIS 10 because it helps me meet my deadlines, but like what I mentioned earlier, I am also open to other types of powerful software particularly the open source ones. The open source ones somehow unveil the heart and soul of what GIS can do.

This is what makes learning so versatile. There is so much to explore here. When I was in college, I was only dipping my toes at the tip of a very deep pond. I was dabbling with population data with simulated real-life problems. At work, I solve real engineering and mapping problems and it gives you a sense of purpose when you are not producing outputs just to get a medal for your bedroom wall.

The deep pond, as I learned from my first year in the working world of engineers, was in fact a vast ocean of knowledge that needs flippers and bunch of other stuff. You find coral reefs of analysed geographic information bits, oil spills in the form of messed up data, and many other things. In school, they train you in a pond with ideal conditions occasionally throwing the deadline shark here and there. At work, you are in the ocean with all those waves and it’s up to you the surf the tides and emerge victorious.  

The ocean in its vastness allows you to choose various vessels. So far, I have unveiled in my blog the use of the common vessel for GIS or mapping specialists like me: the GIS software route. I was quite inclined to write more about ArcGIS 10. Again, I promise to write about my QGIS experience some other time.

Despite the popularity, one clear disadvantage of relying on GIS software is the giant space requirement and the technical knowhow required to operate and maintain it. When you use GIS software, you also experience physical limitations like the video card requirements. For example, when I am doing mapping stuff on an i3 Pentium processor, I occasionally find it not responding or crashing during an intense geoprocessing activity when used with other apps like Skype and Mozilla Firefox.

In comes Google maps and they have promoted the concept of crowdsourcing, where even non-technical people (their Asia-Pacific bigwig once said “even an 11-year-old can use our system”) can contribute to a growing spatial database. But Google has a limited set of things they can share as open source and the rest has to be paid dearly with a premium.

Another apparent disadvantage is that when one technical staff member corrects a database entry from his computer, it is not as easily reflected in the computer of his other team member who might be using the same layer. I personally experienced this at work where my officemate has edited something on a road network file and I was using an obsolete version already. We don’t talk a lot because we are all busy so when you need to scramble for a quick thematic map for a client, you do not have the luxury of time to verify if you are using the same file. It’s cumbersome but it happens especially when you consider large institutions or agencies.

Sure, we can set up a server and a local network, but then you can have conflicting copies of the same file if they are accessed and edited at the same time by different people working in multiple computers.

Small wonder that these days, more and more people and institutions are now opening up to what is considered as the Web GIS segment of the mapping world. It’s Coke Light to the heavy Coke that is given by the usual mapping software. Even the premium mapping mogul ESRI accommodates this growing segment of the mapping world that makes use of internet maps that do not require an installation of or purchase of their ultra-expensive GIS software by having their own free web viewer.

Definitely, this is not the last time that I will write about working with the skeletons of GIS giant applications. It’s me thinking aloud about a subject that I am passionate about. I have finally warmed up to the idea that I can use various mapping vessels (ex. GIS software, Web GIS, programming, etc.) to achieve a common end, and whatever vessel I choose, it will make me a better mapping sailor if I am going to be very accommodating and fearless in the face of uncharted waters.

Who knows, that just might be the road of making me the captain of my own GIS ship?

Or perhaps I can be content with canoeing or a boat or a few columns of a sun-kissed raft. The possibilities are endless. At the moment, I am scoping the area and sunbathing with my BB cream.

I have found by experience that the really kick-ass and worship-worthy GIS navigators would spend time digging deep in the cool finds of their respective GIS vessels than idly send out self-glorifying Facebook messages. And for me, they’re the true programming heroes worth liking and befriending on Facebook.


[Special thanks to Engr. Ranel O. Padon for being an inspiring programming teacher and for providing me with my first GIS wooden raft. 🙂 ]