Monday, January 08, 2007

Why use a 3rd Party Viewer for your GIS Data

By Joey Rogers and Charlie Marlin

A question that GTI sometimes gets asked is “Why should I use your viewer for my GIS when I could use the viewer sold by my GIS vendor?” This is a question that deserves some deliberation.

Focus – Where is the “A” team?

GIS vendors are focused on making their GIS work correctly: creation of features, topology, updates, conflict resolution, etc. This characteristic is obvious if you take a look at popular GIS vendors and how their viewers are positioned (if they have a viewer at all). This focus is not a bad thing. You want the GIS data to be created and maintained properly. Let the GIS vendor do what it does best.

GTI is focused on developing the best viewer possible. While GTViewer capability spans the data analysis and data collection realms, its primary objective is providing the best viewer possible for people who need access to the GIS data.

GIS Vendors try to provide a full suite of products starting with the GIS itself then all of the periphery applications: Design, Analysis (or interfaces with Analysis packages), Plotting, Viewing, Data Collection. As the GIS vendors attempt to provide the full suite, the non-core applications have historically been neglected or overlooked. In the GIS data world, these applications that get pushed to the bottom are the ones used by the most people. This situation is ironic. Viewing applications should be given just as much attention as any other part of the GIS, especially since many more people use the GIS data through a viewer application than in any other way. The cost of the GIS viewer is not a significant part of an overall GIS solution, and GIS vendors have traditionally invested their money, time, and development in the higher dollar components. Reflecting its focus, GTI devotes all of its resources to the GIS viewer.

Design – For whom?

Many GIS viewers are simply stripped down versions of a full GIS seat or cannibalized parts of other applications that were never designed to be viewers. In some cases, a full GIS seat may be recommended by a GIS vendor as the viewing application (requiring the full GIS seat cost and complexity for a viewing seat). GTI has a very different approach to this problem. The overwhelming majority of actual users are not “GIS” users; they are customer service representatives, marketers, planners, linemen, tree trimmers, leak inspectors, construction foremen, supervisors, managers, etc. GTViewer was designed from the ground up as a usable, productive viewing tool without the distractive influences of a GIS. Why would you force the majority of the users of GIS data to learn an overly complicated interface designed for the smallest group of users?
The primary benefit of a field or office viewing product is that it allows people to use geospatial data to do their regular jobs more efficiently (which is the whole point of having a GIS). It is not economical to require such users to become GIS professionals. GIS professionals require extensive training and education. And they produce results that bring tremendous value to their companies, governments, and agencies. But forcing all users of geospatial data to become GIS professionals is like making all car passengers become mechanics. As an aside, I might remark that in the early days of automobiles, this may have been a reasonable requirement. Cars failed often. And anybody who drove one needed to work on it often to keep it going. (Many GIS veterans will say the same about the early days of their field!) But those times have passed. Cars are more popular and useful today than they were during their first 30 years precisely because they do not require full time maintenance. They can be designed for users rather than for mechanics. Likewise, today’s third party geospatial viewers can enhance a worker’s productivity by fitting in with that work directly, rather than by requiring advanced skills from a different occupation.

Integration – Fact or Fantasy?

One of the longest-running abuses of large software companies is their practice of leading customers to believe that because multiple software products are sold by the same company, they will work together seamlessly. Sadly, such integration is often not actually realized. For instance, many GIS vendors require the source GIS data to be converted or prepared for mobile applications, which is the same workflow taken by most third party viewing vendors. Alternatively, if the GIS vendor is not converting their data to a “mobile-ready” format, they are probably not providing geospatial data in the way that works best on mobile devices
The major GIS vendors have also invented the concept that only they can provide effective components for their GIS systems; it’s sort of like Ford Motor Company trying to claim that its cars can only use Ford tires. This concept is wholly untrue and in fact usually turns out to be a limiting characteristic instead of a strength. For example, viewers from one GIS vendor have never been effective when used on data from another GIS vendor. By contrast, GTViewer is not bound to any one GIS format, so it can support data from multiple GIS sources simultaneously whether you simply need support for multiple GIS sources or are transitioning from one GIS to another.


The major GIS vendors have generally priced their viewing software fairly high and then discounted it heavily when bundled with their mainstream products. Just because something is sold at half its list price doesn’t mean it then has twice the value. A poorly designed tool that sells for less than a better-designed rival will only save money the first day. The buyer will pay for the difference every day his employees use a second-best tool.

How did the software start out? Was it a CAD product that morphed into a mapping tool? Did it result from a crash program to create a me-too product, driven by market pressure? GTViewer has a unique history. It was designed starting with a clean sheet of paper by a software architect who had spent years working with viewing software and its users. GTViewer reflects insights gained through practical experience. Now in its fifth major release, GTViewer does what people should expect. It scales to large data sets. It shows aerial photography. It allows users to sketch intuitively. It provides a rich array of view controls that can declutter or emphasize what the user wants to see with minimal or no effort from the user. Printing, GPS integration, and a query subsystem are all included. Snappy performance is standard. Crucially, all these features are provided through an engaging and approachable user interface that is suitable for people without GIS backgrounds.

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