Of Predictions and (Geo)Hipsters

“Never make predictions, especially about the future.” – Casey Stengel

A few days ago, my friend Atanas Entchev asked me for my thoughts on coming trends in 2014for a feature he was preparing for his GeoHipster site. Being the obliging sort that I am, I provided a couple and I’ve been attempting to explain one ever since. This has mostly been back-channel via private messages and such but, today, the GeoHipster piece was the subject of the “#geowebchat” on Twitter. Twitter is very effective for some types of communication but quickly goes off the rails where nuance or anything long-form is required. So, it was time for a post. My prediction went like this:

I think 2014 will be the year Javascript takes over mapping and visualization in the geospatial world.

It was followed by an apparently too brief explanation that I will attempt to expand here.

I am very fortunate that, in my professional circle, I am connected to a number of people who are doing very cutting-edge things with a lot of technologies. These people have been doing very impressive things with various web technologies for a number of years. So much so that these technologies are somewhat mundane in those circles. As a person who makes my living supporting Federal contracts for a number of agencies, I also have a foot in another camp that has not been as far along with these tools.

Before I get too far into this, I will state that there are many people building very cutting-edge systems in and for the Federal government, but the penetration of modern web tools and techniques is very uneven for a number of reasons. The reasons range from procurement inefficiencies to byzantine information security requirements to workforce training issues and so on. This is generally a reflection of process, not people. As a result, there are still many shops operating on platforms such as Windows XP and Internet Explorer 8, which does not allow for advanced web development.

My observation over on GeoHipster was not targeted at the cutting-edge developers but rather a reflection of changing trends I am seeing across the vast middle of the technology sector represented by large teams of developers working in the bullpens of various government buildings and large system integrators. Initiatives are under way to begin swapping out antiquated technologies for more modern, if still slightly behind the curve, versions that allow for more modern approaches. These initiatives happen to coincide with a push by major vendors away from older technologies, such as browser plug-ins, to more standard development tools such as Javascript, and its supporting ecosystem.

This community is made up of a vast number of very talented developers who have been working with middle of the road technologies for all of the reasons discussed above. The maturation of tools and processes in the Javascript ecosystem lends itself to wider adoption going forward and I see that accelerating in 2014. Dave Bouwman’s excellent post on Javascript tools is exactly the kind of resource that shows developers used to working with heavy IDEs and other tools that provide a lot of hand-holding how to achieve the productivity they expect with the next generation of development tools. Dave, of course, is also well-versed is the life these developers lead so I am certain he had an eye on that community with his post.

All of this leads to great opportunity. For as much great work that has already been done, there is an army of smart, talented developers who have yet to be turned loose with modern web tools. This is a community that implemented geofencing, “geotriggers,” location-based alerting and other concepts using older languages and architectures at least a decade before they appeared in the current marketplace.

So, ultimately, my prediction had very little to do with Javascript and modern web technologies and much more to do with the talents of a large developer community that has been waiting to make use of them. Overly optimistic? Perhaps, but it beats the alternative.