| 3 minute read |

In the GIS industry we are often told we are behind the curve and sadly it’s often true. It was true of Web 2.0, it was true of mobile and it was true of cloud computing.

As you are probably aware the new hotness in tech is “big data”.

Here’s how it’s described on Wikipedia:

Big data is the term for a collection of data sets so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using on-hand database management tools or traditional data processing applications. The challenges include capture, curation, storage, search, sharing, transfer, analysis, and visualization.

Sound familiar? It should do. This is what GIS and remote sensing has been about since day dot.

So for once we’re in a position where we’re leading rather than bringing up the rear, and for once in order to see where things are heading we need to look internally at our own industry and peers, rather than externally.

The funny thing is that while the rest of the tech world is gravitating towards big data we’re gravitating away from it. At FOSS4G, which is the bellwether for our industry, the focus wasn’t on big; the focus was very much on small. Or more specifically, small data, which I would define as:

Small data is the term for a collection of data sets so small or niche that it becomes difficult to justify the cost and complexity of common database management tools or traditional data processing applications. The challenges include cost effective capture, curation, storage, search, sharing, transfer, analysis, and visualization.

The current GIS toolbox available to us contains a lot of very big hammers which are unsuitable for cracking the proverbial small nut. The future of our industry isn’t about pulling mass amounts of data towards the center like a black hole, it’s about pushing simple, accessible tools that facilitate collection, collaboration and analysis to the peripheries.

Rufus Pollock, the Founder of the Open Knowledge Foundation summed this up perfectly in his blog post titled Forget Big Data, Small Data is the Real Revolution:

This story isn’t about large organisations running parallel software on tens of thousand of servers, but about more people than ever being able to collaborate effectively around a distributed ecosystem of information, an ecosystem of small data.— Rufus Pollock

“The real revolution is the mass democratisation of the means of access, storage and processing of data. This story isn’t about large organisations running parallel software on tens of thousand of servers, but about more people than ever being able to collaborate effectively around a distributed ecosystem of information, an ecosystem of small data.”

And I will leave you with the web map that inspired this post. It’s a map created by Stacy Bogan who is a volunteer at the MSPCA (Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), the map shows sterilized cats in North Andover Massachusetts, the data may not be large, the number of users may be small but that doesn’t make it any less important: