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Is GoogleMaps GIS?

Published in Neogeography  |  22 Comments

In my previous post about building a KML of the California green building directory I made a very off-hand comment about how a GoogleMap does not mean GIS. Andres has challenged my comment and provoked a very thoughtful discussion.

My original comment was merely based on the original article of the Green Building site that seemed to imply that GoogleMaps alone meant a GIS. My feelings are that mapping tools have become ubiquitous and easy to use – not requiring advanced expertise to utilize for visualizing geospatial information.

This thought more generally goes along with previous discussions about what is Neogeography, though more focused on the underlying technologies and even the question if GIS is primarily a set of technologies or is it the techniques, and application of those techniques?

GoogleMaps GIS.png

From my perspective, the claim that a web map is GIS is similar to saying that a light switch is Electrical Engineering. Engineering was used in the design and development of the house electrical system and grid. But in the end, the light switch has become a commodity. It’s a device anyone can grab off of a local hardware store shelf and install in their house.

The digital incarnation of geospatial tools has quickly changed the landscape of GIS and geo-applications. GoogleMaps and associated slippy maps, geocoders, and visualization tools are an impressive integration of techniques and technologies, but it has also become a commodity that any developer can quickly implement into a site. This does not detract from their usefulness, but merely is a comment on the reduced knowledge and expertise an implementer or user requires to make preliminary use of such a system.

What does this mean for GIS? FantomPlanet pointed out the same thought. GIS has the capability to lead the way in developing more advanced tools. GoogleMaps has made the idea of web mapping vernacular, and that means there is a strong desire for better tools to reach into more places. More advanced techniques and understanding will push these new tools to provide analysis and understanding of complex processes.

Thanks for challenging me Andres! Join the discussion.

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  1. Kevin Dunlop says:

    June 12th, 2008 at 5:25 pm (#)

    If you go by the true defination of GIS, more often than not you get an answer that would include GoogleMaps. Example:

    From American Heritage Dictionary
    GIS (Abbr): Geographic Information System
    A computer application used to store, view, and analyze geographical information, especially maps.
    –In this case, Google Maps is a GIS.
    Google is
    1. A Computer application (anyone doubt this)
    2. Used to store (all roads in US), view (webpage map), and analyze (get directions) geographical information.
    3. especially maps (ie google MAPS).

    So with this I would have to say that Google Maps is a GIS. It is not the only GIS but it is still a GIS. Try entering “define:GIS” in google search bar. You get back about 20 definitions of GIS, almost all fitting with the above example.

    From your light switch example, I would say that you are using GIS as defined as Geospatial Information Sciences (more commonly abbr as GISc). If you are indeed talking about GISc, then I would agree with you that Google Maps is not a GIS (or GISc). Too often I thing people interchange Geographic Information Systems with Geographic Information Sciences.

  2. Josh May says:

    June 12th, 2008 at 6:58 pm (#)

    To me, “Google Maps” is the quickest and easiest way that I can describe to a non-geo-person what a GIS is. I always make sure to emphasize the word “system” however, noting that’s it’s not only the GUI or end user application, but also the servers, databases, algorithms, etc. that make up the GIS. So yes, when viewed as such, Google Maps is a GIS.

    Disclaimer: I just started studying GIS 6 months ago. 🙂

  3. Andres says:

    June 12th, 2008 at 11:28 pm (#)

    Thanks for getting this post out there and expanding on the discussion, Andrew.

    Just to clarify, I don’t feel that I am challenging you, per se. Rather, your post on the Green Buildings mashup included a sentiment (‘off-hand comment’) that caught my attention, and subequently led me to simply throw out the question of whether “Google Maps is GIS” to a broader audience.

    Okay, enough of me…let’s hear from some other folks.

  4. Gerry Creager says:

    June 12th, 2008 at 11:30 pm (#)

    I’d have to agree that Google Maps|Earth is not a GIS, in that it does not offer analysis services. That it offers directions (an application of available data using an algorithm unrelated to the core Google imagery and questionably related to the map data in hand does not constitute analysis. Sorry.

    Google’s applications are, however, depiction services of some import. I think these are a stellar example of what out-of-the-box good coders can come up with to advance a field (whether they’re GIS or not, they’re improving both the practice of GISci and GIS).

    I will also agree that electronic mapping tools in general, and geospatial information tools more specifically, are becoming ubiquitous. I will step out on a limb and suggest that in the foreseeable future, say, within 10 years, there will be sufficient dissemination of GIS tools and techniques so that we no longer consider “normal” GIS a technical specialty, but instead, we’ll consider training the geomaticists and GIScientists who will drive new technique development, rather than training the GIS practitioners.

  5. David Crouse says:

    June 13th, 2008 at 3:54 am (#)

    Yes Google Maps/Earth is a GIS, under any definition you want to use. It is a geographic information service. I dont think that there can be any argument there. Is it science? It all depends on how you use it. At its base, it allows the user to view information, aerial or satellite images, and learn something about the area they are looking at. I dont think that you can look at the work a number of scientists have done with the images in discovering ruins or meteor craters that have been long undiscovered and would have remained so without Google Maps. That is science. It may not be the analytical tools that an ArcGIS might give, but it is a tool. Arc does things that Google maps will never do, and Google maps does things that Arc will never do. So for me it is solidly in the spectrum of GIS tools that are available.

  6. John Fagan (Multimap) says:

    June 13th, 2008 at 5:27 am (#)

    Coming at it from another angle.

    Perhaps before we ask “Is GoogleMaps GIS?”, should we ask “Is the GIS acronym still relevant today”? Nice post on this topic at MetaCarta’s new blog.

  7. Rudi Gens says:

    June 13th, 2008 at 6:15 am (#)

    From my point of view Google Maps/Google Earth has been put into a corner that it was never meant to be in. As far as I can see it was never meant to be a full blown GIS.

    People have rightfully pointed out that the analysis capabilities of Google Maps/Google Earth are rather limited. However, it has to some degree revolutionized the way we deal with geospatial data with respect to visualization. It does a marvelous job of making the data accessible to a broader public. The analysis is limited to basic functionality of a GIS: measuring distances and navigational features. Nothing wrong with that. However, it does not offer anything beyond that. If you are looking for something that does some complex three-dimensional geospatial analysis, you will not find it in Google Maps/Google Earth.

    Kevin cited a perfectly valid definition of GIS. One of the issue that Google Maps/Google Earth does not really address is maps. And I am talking here about full support of map projections (and datums). The default cylindrical projection that is behind Google Earth works fine for basic visualization purposes for the entire globe. Try the current Google Maps API for regions close to the poles. It just falls apart because it was never meant to be used in this way. I don’t think GIS was in anybody’s mind when Google Earth was conceptualized in the first place. The proper use of map projections with the accuracy that you would expect from your GIS analysis completely contradicts the use on a global scale.

    As David rightfully pointed out, an ArcGIS does things that Google Earth/Google Maps will probably never will be able to do. And vice versa. I am working in the field of remote sensing. Do I use Google Earth for visualizing scientific data? Whenever it is appropriate, e.g. showing people where a certain data set is located. Google Earth comes with its own reference system of global satellite image coverage. Can’t beat that with anything else but virtual globes.

  8. Dave Smith says:

    June 13th, 2008 at 8:12 am (#)

    There’s a lot of discussion about semantics, what’s ‘GIS’ and what even goes beyond GIS – with some people viewing GIS just as traditional desktop GIS – with others dodging the GIS term and looking at the breadth of activities, from locational technologies to NSDI and metadata catalogs, and so on…

    There’s also the flurry of people who’ve latched on to mapping APIs and have produced a few maps, to now pronounce themselves the gurus of GIS – Great to see their enthusiasm, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. And often, they don’t even want to be bothered with little things like geodesy, projection systems and why their data doesn’t line up properly…..

    Further, where does all the other depth and breadth of analysis – real, interactive analysis, using geoprocessing and models fit, how about non-geographic visualization of locational data, such as schematics, and so on?

    Google Maps and Google Earth are just the tip of the iceberg… But it’s good that folks are seeing the value and power that it can bring.

  9. Kyle Schaper says:

    June 13th, 2008 at 8:42 am (#)

    I would argue that GIS is too broad of a term.

    Stating that Photoshop and Paint are both graphic arts programs is a true statement. So are Final Cut Pro, Flash, and Illustrator. But anyone knows comparing them makes Paint look lackluster next to a full-featured professional piece of software. Its “analysis” doesn’t include advanced algorithms in filters or alpha channels, but when you need a quick screen capture, cropped with a little red arrow, it performs every time. Compare to for a true online/offline comparison.

    I think it is a similar situation with GMaps|Earth and Arc. With overlays like MyMaps, KML, and geoRSS, the basics are there to add and manipulate data. Can a citizen query a hosted parcel layer with 470,000 records for the property at his current location using GPS and GMaps on his phone, then pull in wetland data from the county, floodplain from FEMA, and zoning from the city, all while in the field? Not yet. Could we get to that point? Absolutely. Should we? That is what we are trying to figure out…

  10. Gumby says:

    June 13th, 2008 at 11:37 am (#)

    Google Maps is not a GIS it is a software/hardware and data, which is only part of what makes a GIS. Don’t forget GIS means Geographic Information SYSTEM, the system being the key part. Visualization tool yes GIS no

  11. geomantic says:

    June 13th, 2008 at 5:17 pm (#)

    Good post, Andrew. The NeoGeo vs GIS debate is fascinating and I think its going to be a while before it is resolved. I also think blanket statements such as “GIS is dead” or “Google ain’t GIS” completely miss the central point that we now have a much richer toolset than we did just a few short years ago. There will always be a place for heavy-duty analytical packages, but the new, lightweight tools are satisfying a widespread journalistic-type usage that GIS could never do. It’s time to acknowledge that both GIS and neo-geo drive each other and most importantly, get people actively engaged and thinking about place, space, and location.

  12. David Lamb says:

    June 13th, 2008 at 9:09 pm (#)

    Another way to look at it might be: are ArcExplorer, Tatuk Viewer, etc.. GISystems? I usually refer to them as viewers, so there are many levels of functionality in a GISystem (ArcView doesn’t have the same functionality as ArcInfo). Google Maps and Google Earth, if they are GIS, then I would consider them to be on par with a viewer. Just like I wouldn’t use ArcExplorer to create a geodatabase, edit topology errors, and query the data, I’m not going to use Google Maps for these purposes. I can use viewers to share information, and in some cases Google Maps is much better for this than a static map (I mean who doesn’t have internet access these days). We use the term scale (or global v local) all the time, why not use the same sort of ontology with GISystems.

    I prefer not to knock Google Maps as a GIS, because I think Maps and Earth have done a lot to improve peoples’ knowledge and interest in Geography in the last few years.

  13. Andrew says:

    June 14th, 2008 at 9:42 am (#)

    Great set of thoughts and reactions.

    One thing I should clarify about my point of view. I wasn’t question all of “GoogleMaps”, but more of the “static features on a slippy map” – Google MyMaps and other placemarking applications.

    The reason for me asking this question isn’t meant as a negative view of Google’s, Microsoft’s, Multimap’s, etc. toolsets and features. It’s more about the management of expectations and the claims that a static map with markers on it is a “GIS”.

    Going back to the original site, it had stated that they were providing an advanced “GIS” of Green Buildings. So it was the question of the claim of an advanced tool for investigation and visualization versus markers on a map.

    And the discussion of “What is GIS” is valuable as it gives everyone the chance to reflect and discuss the broader goals we’re all working towards. Those of you on the Geowanking mailing list may be following the critical conversation of “just another mash-up” that I also think is a good question to be asking and addressing. Especially as Dave Smith points out that there is an influx, or at least cross-over of geospatial amateurs with experts.

  14. Chris Brown says:

    June 15th, 2008 at 1:44 pm (#)

    I am of the opinion that the “G” in GIS is detrimental to the way we look at spatial data. Why restrict this field, that could easily be called Spatial Information Systems, to geography? Think of how many “indoor” applications people have built… Is that geography? What about mapping of the human body? That’s still spatial, right? There are a multitude of other examples that come to mind…

    This argument is semantic. I am a spatial information specialist. I try to convey information about locations/space as good as possible. Depending on the resources I have at my disposal, I look at different options for disseminating spatial information to a client/society/domain expert.

    Google Earth is free. Virtual Earth is free. ESRI is not, by any measure. Well, OK, do I really need a crazy projection or exact double precision measurements with a 256 Tb capacity for my spiffy file geodatabase? Yes? OK lets go with ESRI and accept the cost. No? OK let do it open source because it’s free (and a lot more fun).

    With that said, I didn’t really get at whether or not Google Earth is a GIS, just that, “does it matter?”

  15. Matthew Gilmore says:

    June 20th, 2008 at 8:57 pm (#)

    Thanks for this post…I have always said Google Maps is not GIS. It’s an OK visualization tool. Once can try to DISPLAY some GIS analysis using it. But you don’t do geographic analysis with Google maps.

  16. jimben says:

    August 7th, 2008 at 2:35 pm (#)

    I find it helpful to look at it like this:
    There are three categories of GIS users, distinguished by their primary use case and what they need to do what they do.

    Category 1 are the data creators/maintainers. They compile geographic information from other sources (legal/historical documents, remote sensing, etc.). They also add value to the data by relating it to other data, find and correct errors, and normalize/denormalize the data into models that are appropriate for special purposes (e.g. geocoding or graphic rendering). Category 1 users are generally highly trained professionals who have specific domain knowledge and use expensive hardware and software. They may also engage in application development to standardize and optimize their activities.

    Category 2 users are analysts. They consume and add value to the data from the Category 1 users. They perform mathmatical or statistical analysis that answers specific research or business questions that are too unique to be scripted in advance. They must be able to interpret the question in domain specific terms (“We need to find a location for the new branch office so we cost-effectively get maximum exposure to our target market” or “Where are the convenience-store robbers likely to strike next”) and translate the question into a specific series of operations on geospatial and other data, and then phrase the results in terms that domain experts can understand. Like Category 1, are generally highly trained professionals who have specific domain knowledge and use expensive hardware and software, and may also engage in application development to standardize and optimize their activities.
    Categories 1 and 2 comprise the traditional, old-school GIS roles. Historically, GIS professionals have moved back and forth between these roles, until they end up in a career niche of one kind or another. Those roles won’t ever go away, but their growth is fairly limited.

    Category 3, on the other hand, is anybody with a browser. Their use cases start with the words “I just wanna…” (e.g. “…see a map” or “…get directions to this address”). The don’t know or care about coordinate systems, data models, normalization, versioned geodatabases, file formats, or any of the other issues that Category 1 and 2 users struggle with all the time. They just want a simple answer to (what seems to them) a simple question. Old-school professionals may look down their noses at them, call them amateurs or idiots. They may get territorial about the invasion and the dumbing-down of their GIS domain. But this is the scalable market on a hockey-stick growth curve. Tiny productivity gains have huge net impacts when they’re shared by such a wide audience.

    Whom do you want to develop applications for?

  17. joe cool says:

    November 19th, 2008 at 4:41 pm (#)

    i love GIS, and so should you. GIS is the what runs the universe

  18. joe cool says:

    November 19th, 2008 at 4:43 pm (#)

    This guy really knows what he is talking about. This is the most important article in the history of the world. You rock Andrew Turner.

  19. Steve Blake says:

    March 23rd, 2009 at 10:08 am (#)

    I realise that this debate occurred sometime ago now but I’ll add thoughts anyway as I need some help.

    I’m a teacher in the UK (11-16yr olds) but with a degree in GIS (systems that can link, manipulate and analyse spatial and non-spatial data for the purposes of improved decision making) and have some commercial experience in the field. However, I’m 10 yrs out of date and need a relatively cheap or preferably free online GIS that pupils could use. Any suggestions? I like Google Maps, but where’s the tools; buffer analysis etc. I have pupils crying out for engagement and they respond well to problem solving using mapping (check out but creating their own tasks is the next step.
    Until ESRI manage to make a credible and jargon free interface and tool set, their product is too geeky for school.

    Any thougts anyone?

  20. anonymous says:

    April 18th, 2009 at 2:36 am (#)

    Since people are still talking about this I thought I’d add my two cents.

    I’ve worked for over a decade with GIS and have done extensive research into different applications of GIS.

    Personally, I am not too sure but I would lean towards calling Google Maps a GIS application, whereas the entire system with server, etc. is the GIS.

    For example, how many people here have developed with ArcView and/or ArcIMS/ArcGIS Server or Map Server? Would you consider those GISes? What would you call the applications you develop on them?

    Would ArcExplorer alone be a GIS or would the entire system? If I can develop on an ArcServer backend can’t I do similar functionalities with a Google Map Server backend? The answer is yes, I have personally added features to a Google map application to query and retrieve data.

    As an example consider this – a client I know wanted a custom GIS application done that could remotely query an ArcServer to get the location of certain assets upon request.

    This system did not provide buffering, etc. – although through the backend the server did, as I assume Google Maps Server through custom querying may. I considered this a GIS application that is part of a GIS. However, I could be wrong and that is why I wanted to share this to see how others would respond.

    Many of us who have worked extensively with ESRI and other vendors generally have a problem with calling anything that does not seem exactly like the desktop interface we’ve grown to love called a GIS. However, when you examine the generic definition, even CAD systems that work with spatial geographic databases can be considered GIS.

  21. Andrew says:

    April 20th, 2009 at 9:38 pm (#)

    @Steve definitely a good point. Would be interested to hear if GeoCommons can fill in some there with GIS education.

    Like programming is becoming a common tool for *any* discipline (technology, science, humanities, life) – mapping tools and analysis could be equally beneficial for students to apply in studying and understanding the world.

  22. Tosin says:

    January 23rd, 2011 at 1:41 pm (#)

    The issue is the evolution of technology. Geographical Information System may be viewed alongside technologies like Cinematoraphy , Photography, Photogrametry for illustration, technologies that have been forced to evolve based on indisputable modern realities.

    With the evolution of cloud computing, grid computing, virtualisation and virtual reality, the concepts of information processing, analysis and visualisation are taking new perspectives, leaving behind traditional norms, like GIS.

    Google earth, Microsoft virtual earth, QGIS and other s are more relevant for land related information systems today than traditional directions.