Without current geospatial technologies we
would likely have geospatial insight — a term that originated only
recently in response to a greater convergence of technology, enabling a
distinction between locations on the earth based on the use or non-use
of graphic technology. We would probably be a navigation dominated
society. Since advanced technologies including imaging, GIS, GPS,
sensors and other digital instruments would not have been available we
would probably talk to each other more – raising the question of true
The heart of this question revolves around the word ‘geospatial’ which, by Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) definition is ‘Referring
to location relative to the Earth’s surface. “Geospatial” is more
precise in many GI contexts than “geographic,” because geospatial
information is often used in ways that do not involve a graphic
representation, or map, of the information’.
History is full of instrumentation that was used to navigate the
planet. Sextants, sun dials and compasses guided ships and traveller’s
around the globe, often quite accurately, enabling efficient travel to
and from distant places. By OGC definiiton these instruments did not
include a graphic, at least not as we would consider them today.
Instead, these would more aptly be classified as measurement
instruments from which readings could be calculated and obtained – they
were geospatial technologies.
It is not too hard to think of a society based on pre-digital and
pre-internet based geospatial technologies because many of us can
remember it. Imagine what you were doing in the 1960’s and 1970’s and
the tools you were using back then. It took longer to measure
something, longer to survey, longer to navigate and longer to make a
map. Those were the days when cartographer’s made maps, mostly. Now
anyone can make a map. Those were the days when GPS did not exist. To
get around a traverse, a series of measurements were made for distance
and angles had to be calculated.
Our ‘geopatial insight’ has been born of digital technologies that
have speeded up our ability to measure the Earth. In many ways this has
meant a convergence of measurement in combination with knowledge about
place – geographical factors. The Earth’s features and distances
between them is nice to know about, but the attribution and values
assigned to these features and knowledge about them has led to analysis
in complex ways. Systems like GIS, CAD and concepts like BIM are
advanced systems characterized by their abilities to integrate
information, often in ways an explorer or 1490 or 1521 could never
Technology has brought insight, enabled
new ways for looking at problems, understanding them and resolving
them. Technology has also brought automation and the ability to link
processes together. This has meant an increase in efficiency, enabling
larger problems to be solved more effectively and quickly.
I find it peculiar today, sometimes, that
we speak about greater collaboration when, if viewed through early
technology, the ancient users of geospatial technologies collaborated
quite often and usually more directly – person-to-person, by necessity.
Today we talk about collaboration in terms of systems of technology
linking together and interacting. BIM is one example of that. And,
maybe we need to step back a bit at times to ask ourselves, “if my
computer talks to yours, does that still mean I get your idea?” That in
itself is an interesting question, and does involve increased efficency.
Perhaps this is where metadata and semantics enter into the
equation. But the point I wish to make, is that older technologies and
their pathway would have had us collaborating differently and the
trajectory moving forward would have taken a different direction,
Clearly, modern technologies allow us to investigate problems in new
ways today, creating new opportunities in our thinking and insight and
leading us into the future.
The purpose of this question is to step away from our computers and
realize that we’ve gained an improved outlook from the application of
geospatial technology that doesn’t rely entirely on the underpinning
technologies. And yet we also need to appreciate that we’re so much
better off having had a number of years of geospatial technology that
has allowed us to amass knowledge and has let the toolset evolve.
We’re still working hard to fulfill the full promise of geospatial
technology, with fewer barriers over time, but still a ways to go to
complete the vision. While there’s never a real end to development with
such a fundamental tool, there are holes to be filled. Most of those
holes have been discussed extensively, and are awaiting a good deal of
development to solve some sticky issues.
It’s interesting to consider what the tools have brought us, what we
couldn’t do without them, and to ponder what it would be like to start
fresh from scratch.
What We Contribute
The creation of geographic information systems fostered a systematic
approach to geographic problem solving, but the evolution of the
technology has relied as much on our understanding of what these tools
can do as their actual function.
Geographic information systems are a rather young technology, with
systems that combine all the components that we now depend upon
reaching commercial use in the last 15 years. The idea of the
technology goes back a bit further, but the first commercially
available GIS product to include a database component was released
around 1994. It’s important to think back beyond those days to see what
we now know in such a short space of time.
The contributions of geospatial technology are enormous in terms of
the combination of knowledge about our Earth. But the underlying
thought process to combine different types of spatial data for
different insights isn’t a technology problem, it’s a problem of data
aggregation and spatial analysis. The desire and intent to uncover
answers to geographic problems is a necessary ingredient that can’t
rely solely on the machine. You first have to have the desire to answer
a question, collect the right data at the right scale, and then
aggregate and analyze the data to gain insight.
Technology Provides Essential Insight
One incredible thing about geospatial technology is that it allows
you to uncover insight into things that aren’t readily apparent through
human observation. We combine imagery, geospatial data and processes
into the laboratory space of GIS to pull things apart, and analyze and
unlock details that we couldn’t know otherwise.
Many of the geospatial problems that we tackle don’t even start with
an assumed outcome, it’s the tools of geospatial technology that unlock
meaning. This is particularly true when we correlate information from
Without geospatial tools, some of the insight of spatial analysis
could be tabulated is some fashion for some sort of linear report with
graphs and charts and outcomes. But what would be missing is the
compelling map-based visual and simulation that can display a dynamic
process in a way that helps you understand the nuances of a phenomenon.
And gone would be the time-saving efficiencies of the digital process,
replaced presumably by an army of analysts with slide rules and
Starting from Scratch
I’d hate to think about starting the industry fresh again,
particularly in light of all of the great data that we’ve been able to
collect. Early on the vision of GIS suffered greatly because there
wasn’t available data in order to address the problems that the tool
seemed best suited to address. These days, the amount of data has grown
exponentially, and the quality of the data is much better and
consistent for broader geographies. We now have a much better start on
addressing problems, with much fewer frustrations.
It won’t be long before we have better fusion between airborne and
spaceborne sensors for an easily updated digital reality. The much more
readily accessible imagery and other data will provide broader coverage
and greater inputs. It’s taken us a great deal of time and billions of
dollars to build out the sensor networks and the technologies that take
this information and make actionable information out of it.
The industry has evolved nicely, and we’re at a very exciting time
where our access to data from disparate systems holds a great promise
for greater insight. It would be extremely tough to go back to static
maps that can’t be updated and that freeze one view in time without the
added benefit of analysis and data manipulation.
While we mustn’t rely to heavily on technology, leaving room for our
own creative approaches, we can certainly be thankful that the
technology exists, and that it’s been around for some time.