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June 7th, 2016
Does GIS have a history?

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There are a number of ways to read this question of history. In terms of a record of its evolution, incremental innovations and leading minds, that history is rich and well documented. The meaning here is two-fold for both the ability of GIS to catalog and present the insights that have been gleaned from the system over time as well as the ability of the system to explore geographic information in a temporal sense.

The idea that GIS can catalog the changes on our planet is fundamental to its identity and value. The need to detect patterns, discern differences and understand change is of pressing importance. Factoring hugely into this ability to detect nuanced changes over time is our ability to rely on past data and discoveries, both in their accuracy as well as their integrity.  In order for the system to be of greatest value, we must be able to go backward to gain understanding as well as forward with the prescient benefits of predictive analytics.

Lasting Legacy

With systems dating back to the late 1960s, GIS is of legacy age, with early iterations signifying major disruptions that instilled awe. The first GIS in Canada was tasked with land suitability analysis for all of that country in what was largely untamed and unmapped land, involving a herculean task of data capture and analysis that lead to a great many policy decisions that still shape the country today. Similarly, other systems formed, and still form, a backbone of decision making at national, regional and local scales.

These legacy GIS systems are key to the mission of a great many organizations large and small for a whole host of different applications. They are central to decision making and engrained in their role. They have proven themselves of value and have a long history of insight and maintenance that continues to enhance performance. GIS returns insights that no other system can offer and ongoing innovations continue to add to its capabilities.

Archival Quality

Very few systems retain their legacy inputs and iterations in order to open and explore that punch-card file or load that floppy disk. There have been some attempts to catalog and record how such systems performed and how we interacted with them. There’s certainly an interest in the data that legacy GIS systems contained, but very little interest in the pen-plotted magical maps that they output. Data are the value.

We continue to leap forward in ease of use and insight from GIS and it’s remarkable how far the systems have come in their ability to store data, query and explore that data through spatial analysis as well as map and visualize. Thankfully, there are far fewer fears these days about whether our systems can keep pace with format changes and storage mediums. Those issues are fading to the past with interoperability advancements and the ease of integration and conflation inherent with the cloud. There is a concern, however, in our ability to weed out bad inputs and ensure system integrity as the number of inputs continue to expand.

The Hard Map

At this time, the rise of the convenient and accessible map has taken over in the public consciousness and threatens to degrade the hard work that goes into GIS maintenance, where a map is only one output. Yes, it’s easy to take maps for granted when they are so well integrated into how we interact with the world but GIS provides a  bigger means of mapping outside of the individual view, and it’s a far more difficult pursuit.

GIS requires a significant commitment, however, that commitment gets a compound return as more users are exposed, apply its power to their work and add their inputs. Instead of a small department we now see whole organizations with access and more and more engaged with creating maps and apps that display data, provide insight and provide a means to collect more and more accurate data. The greatest rewards are gleaned when GIS scales to an everyday tool across an enterprise and of course when the data can be explored not just for current conditions and results but historically to glean trends and aid decisions.

For multiple reasons, GIS has lost a bit of luster of late. The news of innovations and participation by the GIS community have contracted as the technology has matured. The silver of these legacy systems still shines brightly in some corners, but in others, it has become tarnished with age. Let’s not forget why we polish these systems—for their legacy impact as well as the impact of their legacy. The more we maintain, increase our inputs and integrate with other systems, the more we’ll make history.

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