Coming from various discussions I have had in the GIS and ESRI Users groups in LinkedIn, I decided I should write a log entry describing the three technologies that people discuss frequently, without differentiation between them: the geoweb, web mapping and web GIS. While there are multiple definitions of the three, mine defines the three based on their functionality, differentiating them and drawing clear distinctions.

In essense, the geoweb consists of locationally aware web technologies usually manifested on the world wide web. Web mapping then refers to those online applications that permit users to view or create maps on a web platform, usually with limited or no GIS analysis. Web GIS then refers to Geographic Information Systems that use web technologies as a method of communication between the elements of a GIS.

GIS has been defined numerous times by several scholars and organizations. ESRI, the world’s largest producer of GIS Software defined GIS through the lens of data, map view and model view (source). The United States Geological Survey (USGS) defines GIS as a system capable of capturing, storing, analyzing and displaying geographically referenced information (source). Nicholas Chrisman, a leading scholar in GIS, in his book Exploring Geographic Information Systems, defined GIS as “the organized activity by which people measure aspects of geographic phenomena and processes; represent these measurements, usually in the form of a computer database, to emphasize spatial themes, entities and relationships; operate upon these representations to produce more measurements and to discover new relationships by integrating disparate sources; and transform these representations to conform to other frameworks of entities and relationships. These activities reflect the larger context (institutions and cultures) in which these people carry out their work. In turn, the GIS may influence these structures.” (source) As can be seen by all the definitions, a Geographic Information System has multiple components, including human actors, that work together for a common purpose. These definitions then provide us a first step into clarifying what is the difference between a web GIS and web mapping.

If any of the above definitions are to be considered valid, then mapping is a single component in what is termed GIS, the visualization aspect. Therefore one can define web mapping applications as applications that enable the visualization of geographically referenced data through a web interface available online. While most web mapping applications today allow users to perform some spatial analysis (short path finding algorithms), this does not constitute a GIS application in my mind, as other, simple sorts of analysis are not permitted (imagine spatial queries, buffer analysis, etc).

As web mapping has been clarified, we can now explain what the geoweb is. First of all, the geoweb is considered as a collection of web applications and/or services that are geographically aware. What that means in other words is that applications that somehow are aware of geographic locations, either through geo-ip location or supplemental information as tags or EXIF data in photographs. The uses are multiple, like browsing Flickr photos by location information, load-balancing servers (redirect traffic to the nearest available server to answer requests, etc). The geoweb is therefore an amalgamation of location-aware services available to the public that provide location-based decisions to be made.

The last definition, web GIS, is all that remains. Using any definition of GIS provided above, one will notice there are multiple components. The interaction between the components is usually very direct in desktop GIS. Data, maps and analysis happen on the same computer, so communication is done internally. Enterprise GIS often allows the user to communicate with data remotely, and sometimes even analysis is done remotely. Web GIS enables the communication of all components to happen through the web, enabling diverse data, analysis algorithms, users and visualization techniques that may be hosted at any location on the web.

Of course, the above definitions are the way I understand the world of GIS and location-aware applications. If you have any suggestions or corrections to make on the above, feel free to leave me comments or email me directly.

geowebWebGISWebMapping

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6 Responses to “Geoweb, web mapping and web GIS”

  1. What tamplate do you use in your blog? Very interesting articles

  2. [...] Las especificaciones de este standard fueron publicada por primera vez  en 1999 por el Consorcio Geoespacial Abierto (OGC) , y desde entonces se usa casi en toda Europa y los Estados  Unidos. WMS también constituyen la base de lo que que se conoce hoy dia como WebGIS. [...]

  3. This is a great post and actually makes the distinction much clearer than I’ve seen elsewhere. I’m in complete agreement with your definitions. Whenever the issue of definitions comes up, though, I’m always curious if it’s time to rethink them. I’m going to propose a devil’s advocate view by distinguishing between GISystems and GIScience. The shift from Geographic Information *Systems* to GI*Science* prompted by Goodchild et al encourages us to think about the “organized activity” part of Chrisman’s definition, and specifically, about how our activities constitute a production of knowledge *of* geographic information. So, everyday citizens, when uploading geotagged photos to Flickr, are also involved in a production of knowledge of GI. If this is the case, that both GIScientists and everyday citizens are interested in the production of knowledge of geographic information, can’t it be argued that the geoweb actually presents an interesting dimension of GIScience – arguably, that the geoweb could also fall in the GIScience bubble?

    One reason I have for arguing this is because it’s tempting to think of ourselves as the producers of knowledge, when really the *source* of knowledge is actually the people uploading the pics, videos, etc….. (ryan’s one of those scary liberal/egalitarian academics)

    Just curious about your thoughts on this.

    • I know it’s easy to poke holes in this argument (I myself see at least 3 faulty premises). It’s mostly intended as food-for-thought. :)

    • Ryan,

      Thank you for bringing in the production side of things, especially web-based. I do agree with you (and Goodchild) that the production of geographic information is shifting to include a wider spectrum of “public”. And indeed, the production of geographic information would fall within the realm of GIS, or GIS* (Science, System, substitute any S you like here). As I defined geoweb to be spatially enabled web-based solutions (be it cache servers distributed in space, or someone tagging a picture of trash on their street), then the production of Geographic Information is part of the realm of GIS*.

      The production of knowledge though does not necessarily stem from the production of Geographic Information. I am referring to Ackoff (1989) that offers as a distinction between data, information, knowledge and wisdom. According to Ackoff, information is data that has received some processing to provide answers to “who”, “what”, “where” and “when” type of questions. Indeed, Geographic Information (as in the geo-tagged Flickr image) provide answers to these questions (even in a loose sense), but fail to answer the critical question of “how”, the element required by knowledge. Knowledge is the application of data and information to reach an answer to a “how” question. Now, there is no doubt one can infer from information some knowledge, but that process happens outside the information itself. This is another way to define GIS by itself, a usage of information that allows manipulation to reach an answer to a “how” question. Therefore, I would recast the “public” as the producer of knowledge as the producer of data and information. The knowledge production aspect, while certainly something the “public” is doing, lays outside the realm of generating information (as in a VGI).

      So to recast your second to last sentence. Knowledge production requires the use of information to retrieve an answer, yet the production of information is independent of the production of a specific knowledge. Nothing precludes the information producer from deriving knowledge, but at the same time, there is no requirement for that information producer to derive any knowledge.

      What do you think of the above distinction then? I feel like there is still a lot of work to define and redefine these issues. Please let me know your thoughts on this as well.

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