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July 24th, 2008
What is a GIS?

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Jeff Thurston — "The definition of a geographical information system (GIS) evolved from a
significant amount of research, discussion and debate in the 1980’s and early
1990’s, although the first computerized programs capable of performing GIS began
much earlier. By definition, a GIS collects, manages, analyzes and displays
geographic information."

Matt Ball — "The definition of GIS is rather stable in terms of its underlying components,
however the application of the technology to different platforms and for
different purposes has expanded the meaning to encompass new things over time.
Allowing the evolution of the technology, without dictating the core meaning, is
a difficult thing for early adopters who have helped create the definition that
is being molded to mean something else."

 
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The definition of a geographical information system (GIS) evolved from a
significant amount of research, discussion and debate in the 1980’s and early
1990’s, although the first computerized programs capable of performing GIS began
much earlier. By definition, a GIS collects, manages, analyzes and displays
geographic information.

Even so, the road to the definition of a GIS was never exactly pinned down.
Several researchers (Burroughs, Goodchild, Maguire, Mark, Obermeyer and PInto,
Poiker, Rhind and others) provided a definition for GIS. Nevertheless, most of
their definitions followed a similar pattern, defining collection, managing,
analyzing and displaying geographical information.


New is sexy, tradition is not
There
is a temptation by some people today to re-write the definition of a GIS. This
is due in part to the fact that GIS has become more mainstream, with more people
handling spatial information for consumer and business reasons, who in turn are
searching for a name to identify what they are doing. It is also due in part to
the fact that GIS are maturing and their functionality is reaching deeper into
organizational work flows and processes in different ways, leading to advanced
decision making. And, it is also due, in part, to the fact that GIS is
misunderstood by some people.

The advent of neogeography, Web 2.0 technologies and shared applications that
enable non-GIS professionals to interact and participate in the using of
geographic based information is rising today. This is a positive factor because
it builds on the use of geographic based information, leads to greater
possibility for understanding our world, connects people to the earth’s systems,
processes and other people and because it will ultimately lead to the transition
of new ways – sustainable ways, for operating and living in the world today.

Just as medical advances have not beckoned a change in the name of internal
medicine, heart, psychiatry or other specialist areas; changes in the definition
of GIS ought to be avoided. Although we can point to advances in the use of
geographic information (like medicine), such as mobile applications, virtual
globes, 3D visualization and so on, many of the rudimentary elements of a GIS
have not changed.

A GIS involves abstracting reality, acquiring several types and sources of
spatial data of variable accuracy, the development of a data model, analysis
procedures and some sort of mechanism for displaying the results. This applies
to both the desktop and networked applications of GIS. In other words
collection, management, analysis and representation of geographic information
remain basic components of a modern GIS, every bit as similar to a GIS in the
1980’s.

Tradition is important. Ask any European or other world culture. Societies
and cultures are built on tradition and a goal of modern geographic information
users ought to be to develop more tradition, a sense of deeper culture and the
extension of GIS value. This means promoting the work flows and processes that
enable further use of geographic information in society, particularly for
improved decision making.


Adding GIS value today

The spatial analysis capability of
a GIS is unqiue. Most people understand it through comparing one layer of
spatial information to another, sometimes called intersection analysis. This
function means that a GIS can not only collect information, but it is actually
creating it – new, previously unavailable geographic information being the
outcome.

As GIS mature today we find ourselves becoming more interested in the
modeling capabilities of them. This functioning enables us to improve prediction
and forecasting capabilities, reduce uncertainty and to increase effective
decision making by testing results through trial and error before enacting final
decisions.

Rather than thinking about replacing GIS today, it would be worth our while
to think of building on GIS, building on tradition and extending the
functionality and application of spatial information applications.

A common question asked today is, “am I doing GIS?” It should be obvious as
applications become more embedded into applications through simpler interfaces,
that the answer is, “does it matter?” To be certain, a radiology professional is
probably operating an x-ray machine in hospital, but all we are interested in,
and the doctor, is the x-ray picture. Accordingly, by analogy, a GIS
professional somewhere will be operating a GIS, providing many of the maps or
data people see floating around the internet. We need to discriminate between
what a GIS is – technology, and what a GIS does – the application.

When we ask today, “what is a GIS?” it is important to consider work flows
and processes. GIS exist as components of larger systems, supporting and
interacting with them, providing useful and valuable spatial and geographically
useful information. They are not separate systems – GIS are essential operating
systems – needed at the same levels as CRM, finance and risk management systems
within organizations. People sometmes say GIS are not special, but they are.
Just like CRM or finance are special. Would you operate a business without some
kind of financial system? Not likely.

But we have not, fully, as yet, got our heads around how a spatial
information or GIS can be operated as an integral system to business or
operations. Not just as an attachment, but as an integral system to decision
making. We need to go there in the future.

The needs of GIS today
The classical definition of a GIS
remains today. However, what we want a GIS to do has changed significantly as it
has matured. Ours needs for a GIS today includes incorporation of neogeography,
expanding modeling functions, developing 3D GIS, injecting GIS into decision
making, improving data quality for GIS, expanding hardware delivery components,
exploring visualization in new ways and teaching more people to understand how
GIS can be used to solve real world problems today. We can make a
difference.


Further reading:


The GIS History
Project

Future of GIS
from a Planner’s Lens

 

 

The definition of GIS is rather stable in terms of its underlying components,
however the application of the technology to different platforms and for
different purposes has expanded the meaning to encompass new things over time.
Allowing the evolution of the technology, without dictating the core meaning, is
a difficult thing for early adopters who have helped create the definition that
is being molded to mean something else.

The whole neo vs. paleo debate arises from this friction, but thankfully
we’ve largely seen this ridiculous debate die down. We all have a stake in the
underlying purpose and framework of the GIS vision, regardless of consumer or
professional application, on the web or on other platforms. It all comes down to
the representation of our world in a malleable fashion to gain greater insight
and inform decisions.

Online Ambiguity
While the definition of GIS involves the
combination of a database with visualization capability and spatial analysis,
the large number of platforms has given rise to ambiguity. In the desktop and
server days, it was easy to understand the combination of the technologies,
because the functionality and deployment of the software was a tangible thing
that you set up and maintained. In the days of technology deployed on the
Internet, the existence of the three core technologies becomes a nebulous thing
to understand.

The question often arises that if an application of the technology doesn’t
include one of these three core elements, is it a GIS? In the web platforms of
today there are many instances of map visualization without analysis or spatial
data that is referenced to a location, but not stored in an accessible database.
The fact that data is georeferenced and on the web means that it can be accessed
and manipulated, fulfilling much of the purpose of GIS.

Sites that serve spatial data may have no spatial analysis function, but
tools exist to add analysis functions simply by plugging in components to
existing architectures or by writing some custom code. The ability to add
functionality as the web evolves, means that while certain sites may not conform
to the GIS vision, they may easily fulfill that vision with great ease as more
capabilities come online.

Is the GeoWeb an Über GIS?
The question whether there’s
one or more GeoWeb for different purposes comes up, but the concept parallels
that of the Internet. There is only one framework that we call the Internet, so
logically there is only one GeoWeb. The GeoWeb is the shared representation of
our world, and while you may erect fences around your location, we all share the
content of our planet and it all should be discoverable.

The GeoWeb provides the means for interconnecting individual GIS databases.
Desktop GIS can access and ingest data that’s found on the GeoWeb as well as
publish data to it. We can consume services that reside on the web, and can
integrate different perspectives through the common network that is the web.

The GeoWeb framework provides the means of integrating our collective
knowledge. While there are means of consuming and representing our data in
globes and maps, the entirety of the GeoWeb is not yet a GIS. The barrier at
present is largely data access and discovery, particularly when looking at the
popular geographic exploration systems. There’s no access to data at the
database level to unlock metadata and the multiple attributes that have been
collected about our world. There’s also a lack of analysis functionality.

Analysis is Critical
Spatial analysis is a critical
component of GIS that is only growing in importance with all the pressing
questions that we need to answer about our world. Spatial analysis is a
non-trivial task that requires a good understanding of process and trusted data
at common scales. It’s very easy to draw the wrong conclusions through spatial
analysis, so it’s rightfully remained an expert function.

The evolution of the technology will likely see a parallel evolution where
the shared GeoWeb adds analysis functionality, while professional tools add much
richer analysis capabilities. The offline analysis that the professional tools
can bring to bear will be shared on the broader GeoWeb, but the complex steps to
achieve the insights won’t likely reach broad access.

Much as we’ve seen an evolution of online media toward individual trusted
source journalists, we’ll likely see trusted source geospatial analysts set up
shop to help solve problems. Bloggers are fast becoming the source we turn to
for in-depth investigative reporting, because the web provides them with access
and compensation with very little overhead. The strong need for spatial analysis
could easily evolve to a similar model, with individuals or small shops filling
the void for greater insights.

It’s an exciting time in the geospatial industry. We’ve built the tools and
interfaces for mass adoption, and growing numbers of users are excited about
what they can do. We collectively need to carve more pathways to greater
insights to avoid the fundamental frustrations of being unable to get the
answers to questions we want to ask. At this point in time, data and analysis
functions exist to answer most questions, but it still takes an expert to amass
the right data and perform the right analysis function. That’s really not a huge
issue as long as users that want answers can find the experts.

 

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