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NoGISI’ve got a brother who lives in Connecticut, not far from New York.  I visited him not too long after September 11th, 2001, for no particular reason.  While I was there, a 9/11 benefit concert was held in New York, and we watched it live on television.  We watched a variety of performers come and go, as well as the audience’s varying reactions to them.  Toward the end of the concert, The Who (one of my favorite bands) got up to play.  They played Won’t Get Fooled Again and Baba O’Reilly.

And the audience went nuts.  They yelled and screamed and punched the air and waved their flags and laughed and cried.  They cheered themselves hoarse for a band they believed understood their pent-up national pain and anger.  They cheered for their love of country and their faith in the future.  They cheered for America the Beautiful and for four British boys who seemed to understand.

I sat in my brother’s armchair, drinking a beer and watching this spectacle in dumbfounded horror.  Halfway through the second song, I jumped up and shouted at the television:

“Aren’t you people listening to the words?!?!”

I’ve been reminded of this fairly often as of late, most every time I encounter a discussion about the NoGIS ‘movement’.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the catchphrase, NoGIS is a term adopted by many Map Dorks to signify a perceived need for a paradigm shift within the discipline.

As a concept, NoGIS is meaningful and interesting, and its more sober and informed proponents have supplied me with some lively and enjoyable arguments and/or discussions on the subject.  Of course, these are the same people who currently tend to shy away from the term ‘NoGIS’ as being inappropriate and ill-conceived.  The problem is that the term was adopted while the concept itself was still rather nebulous and unformed.  NoGIS was chosen as a nod toward the NoSQL movement, mainly – I think – because it sounded cool.

Anyway, NoGIS reminds me of that 9/11 benefit concert because for every sober and informed proponent of the concept, there are at least a dozen idiots who have no idea what the whole thing is about but have nonetheless jumped on the bandwagon because they couldn’t pass up an opportunity to wave their flag and shout.  People who are afraid that there’s a revolution brewing and are terrified that it might pass them by.  Kind of sad, actually.

Truth is, there’s no revolution.  Nor is there a looming paradigm shift.  What is occurring is a sort of branching of the discipline.  A fork in the road, as it were.  In fact, we arrived at that fork and passed by it some time ago, but it hasn’t been until now that the need has emerged to sit down and really figure out what it means.

Today’s GIS seems to have such different demands that it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the entire discipline is due for a shake-up.  And it’s not just a question of size – while shuffling around terabytes certainly proposes certain challenges, they’re not terribly different than those presented by shuffling around gigabytes not too long ago.  All other size-related issues fall into a similar category.  While the demands get bigger and bigger, so do our capabilities.

We’re talking about other sorts of change here.  Changes in the primary purpose our data is serving.  Who is using it, how are they using it, and for what purpose?  This is the fork in the road I’m talking about.

A meaningful split occurred at that fork (this is not to imply that there is any sort of divide in the discipline.  We’re all on the same side here).  A large part of the discipline continued happily down the road GIS has been travelling along since its birth, which is why any paradigm shift that happened was not a universal one.

But the new road called for a major reorganization of worldview.  On this new road, the client became the consumer.  The project became the product.  The science of GIS became the business of GIS.

What I’m talking about here is the commoditization of geography.

Yes – it entails it different tool kit, but not a dissimilar one (we are not alone in this – any discipline that has both a theoretical and applied branch has these sorts of differences.  This is most easily seen by comparing how a discipline is practiced in the academy compared to how it is practiced in the public sphere).  And many of the tools do much the same job, but in a different way or to a different degree (a hammer and a pneumatic nailgun both drive nails).

What the flag wavers and shouters don’t seem to be noticing here, though, is that everybody wins.  This fork in the road is a very good thing for GIS.  The more directions we have research and development travelling in, the better off we all are.

As long as we all keep talking to each other.  GIS will continue to travel down both roads (and I hope there will be more to come), and the best thing for our discipline and our selves is to share our advancements so that we can build upon and refine each others’ work.

If we must make distinctions, though, let’s at least do so in a manner that makes sense.  We could apply any number of labels we desire, and many of them would make as much sense as the others.  Personally, I like Theoretical GIS and Applied GIS (I’d like to think which is which is obvious).  They’re fairly descriptive and neither one has any particular negative connotations.

I think it’s about time we drop this NoGIS crap, though.  At the end of the day, we’re all just trying to apply some meaning to geography, or to extract some meaning from it.

And that, my friends, is GIS.

internet When I attended Oxford about a decade ago, I took an amazingly interesting  class called ‘British Perspectives of the American Revolution”.  The woman who taught said class was fond of pointing out that the United States of America is really an experiment, and a young experiment at that.  Whether we can call it a successful experiment will have to wait until it reaches maturity.

I think of that statement often when the internet comes up in conversation.  If the United States is a young experiment, the internet is in its infancy.  For some reason, people today don’t seem to realize this.  Even people who were well into adulthood before the internet went mainstream somehow manage to forget that there was life before modems.  While this circumstance always makes me laugh, it becomes especially funny whenever a new Internet Apocalypse looms on the horizon.

Like this latest crap about Google/Verizon and net neutrality.  I’m sure you’ve heard about it – the interwebs are all abuzz and atwitter about it (I’m sure they’re all afacebook about it as well, but I have no way to verify it).  In a nutshell, it’s a proposal of a framework for net neutrality.  It says that the net should be free and neutral, but with notable exceptions.  You can read the proposal here.  First off, don’t let the title of the piece scare you.  Although the word ‘legislative’ is in the title, here in America we don’t yet let major corporations draft legislation (at least not openly).

Anyway, the release of this document has Chicken Little running around and screaming his fool head off.  In all his guises.  Just throw a digital stone and you’ll hit someone who’s whining about it.  One moron even believes that this document will destroy the internet inside of five years.  Why will this occur?  Ostensibly, the very possibility of tiered internet service will cause the internet to implode.  Or something like that.

Let’s put that one to rest right now.  The internet isn’t going away any time soon.  It won’t go away simply because it is a commodity that people are willing to pay for.

Allow me to repeat that, this time with fat letters: it is a commodity.  The problem we’re running into here is the mistaken belief that a neutral net is some sort of constitutionally guaranteed human right.  We’re not talking about freedom of expression here (except in a most tangential fashion).  We’re talking about a service – a service that cannot be delivered to us for free.  Truth is, net neutrality is an attempt to dictate to providers the particulars of what it is they provide.

A neutral net would be one in which no provider is allowed to base charges according to site visited or service used. Period. It’s not about good versus evil, it’s not about corporations versus the little guy, it’s not about us versus them. What it is about is who pays for what. Should I get better access than you because I pay more? Should Google’s service get priority bandwidth because they pay more?

Predictably, our initial response to these questions is to leap to our feet and shout ‘No!’ (and believe me, kids – I’m the first one on my feet).

But should we?  Seriously – what other service or commodity do we buy that follows a model anything like net neutrality?  Chances are, most of you get more channels on your TV than I do.  Why?  Because you pay for it.  I probably get faster down- and upload speeds than many of you.  Why?  Because I pay for it.  Many people today get data plans (read: internet) on their cell phones.  Why?  Because they pay for it.

Doesn’t this happen because the service provider dedicates more resources to the customers who receive more and/or better service?

And then there are the fears about the corporate end of the spectrum.  As one pundit put it:  What would stop Verizon from getting into bed with Hulu and then providing free and open access to Hulu while throttling access to Netflix?

The short answer is:  Nothing would stop them.  The long answer adds:  Net neutrality wouldn’t stop them either.  Does anyone really believe that net neutrality would stop Verizon from emulating Facebook by forcing customers to sign into their accounts and click through 47 screens before they could ‘enable’ Netflix streaming?

And I may be missing something here, but Verizon getting into bed with Hulu and throttling Netflix sounds like a standard business practice to me.  I’m not saying I agree with it, just that it doesn’t strike me as being unusual.  The university I attended was littered with Coke machines.  Really.  Coca-Cola was everywhere on that campus.  Like death and taxes, it was around every corner and behind every door.  But Pepsi was nowhere to be found.  It simply was not possible to procure a Pepsi anywhere on the grounds of the university.  Why was it this way?  Simply because Coke ponied up more money than Pepsi did when push came to shove.  Oddly, nobody ever insisted they had a right to purchase Pepsi.

Why – exactly – do so many of us think that the internet should be exempt from the free market?

Gather ‘round children, and let me tell you a story.  It’s about a mythical time before there was television.  In the midst of that dark age, a Neanderthal hero invented the device we now know as TV.  In those early times, the cavemen ‘made’ television by broadcasting programs from large antennae built for the purpose.  Other cavemen watched these programs on magical boxes that pulled the TV out of thin air.  Because TV came magically out of thin air, it initially seemed to be free of cost.  The cavemen who made the programs and ran the stations paid for it all through advertising.

Eventually, TV became valuable enough for everyone to desire it.  This led to the invention of cable as a means to get programs to the people who lived too far away from the antennae to be able to get TV out of the air.  Because putting cable up on poles and running wire to people’s houses costs money, the people at the ends of the wires were charged for the service.

It wasn’t long before the cable providers hit upon the idea of offering cable to people who didn’t need it, but might want it.  To get more channels, or to get their existing channels at a better quality.  Unsurprisingly, there was much yelling of “I will not pay for something I can get for free!”, but as you know it didn’t last long.  In short order cable went from ‘luxury’ to ‘necessity’.

Does any of that sound familiar?  Can you see a pattern beginning to emerge?  Let me give you a hint:  It’s about money.  The internet has never been free.  It just appeared to be so because someone else was largely footing the bill (or at least it seemed that way.  Truth is, you’ve been paying for it all along, and the coin you’ve been paying with is personal data).  The internet – like so much of our world – is market-driven.  Don’t kid yourself into thinking otherwise.

And I hate to say it, folks, but it looks as though the market is moving away from net neutrality.  The simple fact that it’s being talked about so much is a clear indication that its demise is imminent.  To be honest, I’m not so sure this would be a bad thing.  In the short term, a lack of net neutrality would pretty much suck.  In the long term, though, it could very well be the best thing for us, the average consumers.

You see, while money drives the market, the market drives competition (as well as innovation).  If our Verizon/Hulu scenario actually came to pass, it wouldn’t be long before another ISP appeared in town, one who wasn’t in bed with Hulu and was willing to offer Netflix (providing, of course, that there was a demand for such a thing).  Eventually, we get to reap the benefits of price and/or service wars (much like cell service providers today).  In fact, this could help solve one of America’s largest internet-related problems – the lack of adequate broadband providers (you’d be surprised how many Americans only have one available choice for broadband).

I don’t think we really need to fear losing net neutrality, even if it is legislated away.  If enough of us truly want to have a neutral net, sooner or later someone will come along and offer to sell it to us.

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Wonderland A couple events of interest to the geospatial community occurred recently.  The first was the release of the Department of Labor’s Geospatial Technology Competency Model, the second (following close on the heels of the first) was GISCI’s reaction to it.  Both are interesting and worthy of deconstruction.  Let’s begin with the latter.

The GISCI release states:  “Portfolio-based certification made sense in 2004, when no authoritative specification of geospatial competencies yet existed. The Department of Labor’s recently issued Geospatial Technology Competency Model helps fill that gap, and sets the stage for serious consideration of competency-based GISP certification.”

I’m not buying it.  If portfolio-based certification actually did make sense in 2004 due to a lack of an “authoritative specification of geospatial competencies”, shouldn’t the provision of such an “authoritative specification” have been the absolute first responsibility of GISCI?  Shouldn’t an organization that aspires to be the source of GIS certification have played a more active role in the specification of geospatial competencies than simply waiting until someone else did so, and then chiming in with “What he said”?

Actually, GISCI didn’t even go that far.  In true bureaucratic fashion, they have instead formed a committee to discuss whether to advise GISCI to stand behind the Department of Labor and say “What he said.”  Now that’s leadership.

In fact, GISCI would be well served to ignore the Department of Labor’s model (for reasons we’ll get to in a bit), but I’m certain they’ll end up embracing it, because the Department of Labor and GISCI both start with the same fundamental mistake.  Both GISCI and the Department of Labor are laboring under the misconception that geospatial technology (hereafter referred to as GIS.  Because I feel like it) is a discipline narrow enough to certify in toto. As stated previously, this is a ridiculous assumption.  The field is just too damn broad and the skill sets too varied.

And if we ever needed a perfect example of this, the Department of Labor thoughtfully provided it with their Competency Model.  I have to say I had trouble believing it wasn’t a joke (I’m still not thoroughly convinced).  The model is shown as a sort of pyramid, upon which “Each tier consists of one or more blocks representing the skills, knowledge, and abilities essential for successful performance in the industry or occupation represented by the model”, and we are informed that “At the base of the model, competencies apply to a large number of occupations and industries. As a user moves up the model, the competencies become industry- and occupation-specific.”  Tier 4 is where we’re supposed to get to competencies specific to GIS.

Okay.  Are we ready to climb the tiers?

I’m pretty much going to get kicked off the pyramid at the outset, since the first item on the first tier is Interpersonal Skills.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m a likeable enough guy, but there’s a good reason I didn’t go into the service industry.  People just annoy me too much.  The rest of the first tier I’ll be okay on.

The second tier I can dance through easily, but I have to linger long enough to argue.  This tier is supposed to represent generalized academic competencies that should apply to the majority of fields.  Both ‘geography’ and ‘science and engineering’ have been placed on this tier, and I don’t believe either of them actually belong.  The average worker in many industries (maybe most of them) doesn’t need to know squat about these.

I’m running into trouble again on the third tier.  Teamwork is a tough one, but I’m actually a rather good team player if I get to be captain, so I might be able to sneak by.  I’m hitting the wall at ‘business fundamentals’, though.  And frankly, this one should be removed from the pyramid altogether.  This is why we have business schools.  So that we can hire people who know how to do business to handle that end of it while we make maps.

The fourth and fifth tiers (the last detailed – the remainder left ‘intentionally blank’) make some sense, but cover far too much ground.  Possessing just a fraction of these competencies would suffice to function rather well in a large variety of GIS capacities, and in many a narrowly focused skill set is actually desirable.  And some of these competencies are nice to have in your tool kit but aren’t actually necessary (such as coding.  You don’t have to know how to build a car in order to drive one.  It does help when it breaks down, though).

I’ve said this before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again:  while I think the geospatial technology industry would benefit from some sort of certification process, the people who seem to be going about it are getting it wrong.  Instead of searching for one large ‘blanket’ certification to spread across the entire profession, the smart move would be to build a model similar to the one used for IT.  GIS would be much better served by a large number of small, narrowly-focused certifications rather than one uselessly large one.

Instead of trying to develop an over-arching definition of our profession, why don’t we just make a list of the things we actually do?  Then we can figure out who can do which ones.  Or does that make too much sense?

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internet By now, you may have heard about the recent case concerning Net Neutrality.  It got a lot of air time on the geek sites.  Most of it was fairly accurate, some hyperbolic.  There are more than a few who termed it Bad News for the cause of Net Neutrality.  From where I’m standing, though, the decision looks like Good News for the cause.  I’ll tell you why.

First, let’s take a look at Net Neutrality.  Wikipedia has a decent article on the subject.  If you have the time and feel so inclined, give it a read.  For the rest of you, I’ll give it to you in a nutshell:

The internet is still fairly new, and therefore so are Internet Service Providers (ISPs).  At the onset of general, commercialized internet availability, ISPs simply provided a sort of blanket access.  For the most part, internet access was largely just a question of on or off.  In the early days (those dark but exciting days of dial-up), customers were often charged by usage – you may remember offers of so many minutes per month for a flat fee.  Much of this eventually graduated into unlimited usage, a move that pretty much solidified with the advent of widespread broadband.  And until fairly recently, this was the status quo.

For the providers, however, the status was not as quo as they would have liked.  The idea of charging general, flat fees put a serious twist in their knickers.  Especially because these newer ISPs were often utilities (phone and/or cable companies) that were used to fleecing customers in a highly detailed fashion.  So they focused their energies into devising new and seemingly justified ways to charge their customers more.

What they came up with was a service-based model.  The idea here is that some internet usage (the ‘service’) uses more bandwidth and therefore should cost more.  Streaming video uses more bandwidth than sending email (the argument goes), so shouldn’t the person streaming video pay more than the person sending email?

For those of you wondering, the answer is an emphatic no.  There are a variety of reasons for the fat letters, but I’ll only address my two favorites.  The first is that the connection you are paying for is already limited.  You’re already paying for a certain amount of bandwidth, and I’ll guarantee that very few of you ever approach it.  And in most cases, you’re not always receiving the bandwidth you think you’ve been promised (read the fine print).  The second – and far more important reason – is that the only way your ISP can know whether you are sending email or streaming video is if they stick their noses where they don’t belong.

And yes – you all know my position on privacy and the internet.  While there is no real privacy on the internet, this does not mean we should invite further invasion from our ISP.

Anyway, the various ‘service-based’ pricing schemes proposed are called tiered service by the ISPs.  They’re called price discrimination by those who oppose them.  And Net Neutrality is the idea that pricing by content and/or service (by any name) is a basic violation of our rights.

Okay.  Now let’s move on to the recent case.  If you’re so inclined, you can read the decision yourself (PDF).  The upshot is that a few years back, some Comcast customers found that their bandwidth was being throttled because they were sharing files peer-to-peer.  A couple of Hey-Corporate-Dirtbags-Americans-Have-Rights type organizations got involved, as did the courts and the FCC, and Comcast got spanked.

Although Comcast complied with the ruling, they also challenged it, the result of which is this recent decision.  And what the actual decision amounts to is simply this:  That the FCC does not actually have the authority to regulate an ISP’s network management practices.

This decision has been regarded by many as a blow against Net Neutrality.  I disagree, because I can’t really convince myself that taking control of internet service away from the provider and giving it to the government would constitute any sort of victory for Net Neutrality.  Especially when we look at the details.

The original ruling presumed the FCC’s authority over ISPs based on The Communications Act of 1934 (that’s right – 1934), specifically the vaguely-worded 4th Section of said Act, which states:

The Commission may perform any and all acts, make such rules and regulations, and issue such orders, not inconsistent with this chapter, as may be necessary in the execution of its functions.

This, despite the fact that a previous ruling (previous to the Comcast ruling – later than the Act of 1934) found that:

cable Internet service is neither a “telecommunications service” covered by Title II of the Communications Act nor a “cable service” covered by Title VI.

This recent ruling was about the FCC and its authority.  In the end, absolutely nothing was decided on the subject of Net Neutrality.  And I would argue that the FCC being no longer considered to have regulatory authority over internet service based solely on a vaguely-worded, ill-defined, 80-year-old Act is rather a victory for Net Neutrality.

It’s not that the FCC shouldn’t be thrust into the role of watchdog for Net Neutrality, it’s just that they should only do so if they themselves are subject to rules that are written specifically to address the issues at hand.

It’s a very, very bad idea to give a government agency a free hand.

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ides-of-marchMy boy and I watched Jon Stewart last night (possibly the night before), and Jon did a bit about the current fiasco at AIG.  He showed a nice montage of video clips, showing various pundits’ sound bites on the subject.  The last (and best) was some yahoo who stated that the culprits at AIG should ‘receive the Nobel Prize for Evil’.

First off, I agree with Jon – we really should stop giving out that prize.  Second, I don’t think this is a case of evil at work.  As much as we all might like to think otherwise, I don’t honestly believe that a group of evil, calculating men (think Cheney) sat around a boardroom and made an evil group decision to do the wrong thing with the taxpayers’ money.

I think something more insidious and frightening occurred:  Business As Usual.  I think the bonuses were given to those folks at AIG simply because it never occurred to anyone involved to do anything different.  Because their values are so skewed that they didn’t actually perceive of it as being ‘wrong’.  It’s just the way these things are done.  Incompetence is rewarded.  Gross incompetence is rewarded richly.  And I find it hard to assign any blame to the individuals involved.  I don’t think their professional lives equipped them to make ethical decisions.  They live in a world where poor judgement and mismanagement are admired and rewarded.  How could we expect them to do anything but aspire to these lofty ideals?

The problem lies not in a few individuals (be they evil or not), but rather in the system itself.  The American way of doing business is morally and ethically bankrupt, and we behave as though this is right and proper.  We talk about business as though it should be kept separate from all other aspects of life, because in the arena of business (politics, too), it’s okay (even expected) to be a scumbag.

Unfortunately, we (as a people) hide this from ourselves.  When situations like the one at AIG crop up, we lie to ourselves and make believe that the problem rests at the feet of a few ‘bad’ individuals.  This is how we keep our own moral integrity intact.  So long as the culprits are easily identifiable, we can comfortably write the whole thing off as an aberration and forget about it.  Which is, of course, why we still have these problems, despite the fact that they just keep on happening over and over.

This time, though, I’m holding onto a faint hope.  So far, they don’t seem to have presented us with a villain (a la Ken Lay).  Without a focal point for our displeasure, there’s a chance (however slight) that we, as a people, may finally start to examine ‘business as usual’ in this country.  And if enough of us do just that, therein lie the seeds of revolution.

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