Geo In The Browser: Less IT Means This Time It’s Different

by Brian Timoney

Call me a glutton for tedious text, but I enjoy end-of-year lists, predictions-for-next-year, and yes, the annual family newsletters my friends send me around the holidays. So killing time during a not-particularly-intriguing final Sunday of NFL football, I found in the latest GeoHipster post of 2015 prognostications a couple of worthwhile nuggets.

“…the client side will eat more of the server side stack.”

Thus sayeth Tom MacWright of Mapbox.  And I’m inclined to agree since Geo-in-the-browser was a major trend I spotted at the 2014 FOSS4G conference in Portland.

Not so coincidentally, Mapbox recently blogged their new-ish Javascript library Turf (“GIS for web maps“)–that does spatial analysis functions such as buffers inside the user’s browser (as opposed to a remote server or database doing the calculations).  Very cool–especially when a small handful of spatial operations cover a large amount of use cases.  But this?


Now I like smack talk as much as the next guy–hell, I even like hyperbole–but I’m doubtful that “GIS for web maps” is the most effective marketing tack for “assaulting GIS”.

JavaScript in 2014–Echoes of early 2000s Java?

As it happens, I saw this movie the last time around, when the Java community arrived in the early 2000s and rewrote all of geospatial. The dominant architectural paradigm of the time was the three-tier, built on open standards, and the software all shows it.

That from industry wise-man Paul Ramsey (with whom I occasionally agree).  Again, I’m more than a little predisposed to middle-aged curmudgeonly been-there-done-that finger-wagging.  But yet I’m excited about geospatial analysis in the browser.


Self-interest, mostly.

I Want Less IT in My Life, and So Do My Clients


Even under the most ideal conditions, the coordination costs between IT departments and their internal customers are significant. And conditions are never ideal: we all have our stories–you, me, and every vacant-eyed PM who sits in the chairs pictured above.  But as the outside consultant trying to deliver even a modest solution to a customer, those coordination issues directly impact my bottom line. Negatively.

(Admittedly this says more about my shoddy consulting talents as I’m aware of the fat stacks of cash that await those who figure out how to profit directly from these organizational frictions e.g. <insert large federal government contractor here>.)

In short, if it doesn’t require a server, I can get something to the client quicker and more profitably.  Minus the burden of dealing with their own IT department, my ideal customer will be more likely to embrace iterative development and experimental pilot projects.

(For those of you shouting that The Cloud solves the same problem, trust me, the IT department has an opinion and  even on the cusp of 2015 the middle manager skepticism will be palpable.)

I’m Running This in My Browser: Is It Software or A Web Page?

A taste of what’s to come can be seen in Howard Butler’s LIDAR viewer.  Just a short time (months?) ago this would have required a software install:  now you can load a not-small LIDAR file, view/manipulate it, and do some analysis all from the comfort of just a single browser tab.  No meetings, phone calls, or emails with the IT department necessary.

Come to think of it, not only will you have to interact less with your IT department, more geospatial capabilities in the browser may also diminish your similarly frustrating interactions with that collective entity known as  “GIS”.

Dare to dream.


—Brian Timoney


Meeting room photo courtesy of  Bankbryan’s Flickr stream