January 20, 2014

The GIS Interface I Always Wanted


I have a love-hate relationship with geographic information systems.  I use these systems frequently and have been thrilled to witness a recent explosion of interest in mapping across various disciplines.  But overall, I have always hated the software.

Part of this is the fault of GIS software UI/UX design.  Current GIS software is designed for a user to work with a database or data tables, and by generating a final set of data, the software will produce a visual product - the map.  Many GIS packages do providing CAD-like drawing or design tools, however application of these tools does not modify existing data.  They may allow one to create a new and empty shape file layer, but it is necessary to then attach data to that shape file.  If I want to make changes to a cartographic layer that already contains data, then I have limited options from the graphics side, and more options from the data side.

The outcome is that seemingly simple goals in GIS contain many steps to achieve and are not intuitive to a new user.   I recall when I was a new student to GIS that the strategy I created to learn the software was "right click at all times,"  otherwise it was impossible to know how to proceed.  Of course anyone who is a frequent GIS user finds all these smaller steps as intuitive because they have used it for a long time.  Consequently many GIS professionals have adapted to the logic of the system and have difficulty to see its flaws.

The other problem with current GIS platforms is the way they are taught.  When learning GIS, students are  introduced to the vocabulary of geography and cartography as the theory component, much of which focusses on the the map, not the data.   In the meanwhile they must undertake assignments and exercises focussed on the software.  The theory and the application remain separate most of the time.  A better GIS class would start with explaining and exploring databases without maps.  Once the student is comfortable with a database, geographic coordinates would be introduced (all using a common projection etc), maps would be generated, and finally the class would begin to explore geographic concepts.  In this manner the teaching is attuned to the system and moves forward in a simple and linear fashion.  

Over the last few years GIS has exploded with options.  When I was first introduced to these tools in 2006, the only options were ESRI products and GRASS as the open source alternative. Today we now have tools such as QGIS, TileMill, Open Street Map, and maps are frequently created tiles for a base map.  Yet I believe there is still plenty of room to reinvent the GIS interface.  I believe we can create a better GIS interface and user experience design to expand versatility.  

An ideal software package would provide each user with 2 options for user interaction.  One option is the same as the current approach, in which a technician works with the data to generate a visual outcome.  The alternative is software that allows one to create a visual modification which will also shift the underlying data accordingly.  This is a step beyond existing products, such as TileMill, which provide the means for designing beautiful maps, but do not allow one to conduct data analysis.

In the above image I rendered an ideal GIS interface, based strongly from Adobe photoshop, on account that photoshop is highly intuitive many users.  This interface features layers in the right corner like photo layers, but the most significant feature is the ability to work across Tables - Drawing/Selection Tools - CARTO in a fluid system.  For example, a user could click on physical elements of a map to select them in a table, then change the look of those items in the CARTO window. 

The array of GIS options today are phenomenal.  Yet I continually am working across different systems because there is no ideal platform for working with data, styles, and design in a fluid manner.  Perhaps we don't need a single platform for all that, but if anyone ever develops a method for underlying data to shift in response to graphic decisions, I suspect we will encounter an entirely new era of cartography.