What is #GIS?….Let’s decide once and for all

I swore I would never do this, giving opinions on an ever changing industry which is in its’ infancy still is a job for the companies wanting to make money out of the word. Yet here I sit, about to put a few thoughts out to you, peers, colleagues and those ready to cut me down and wear my skin (you know who you are :P).

Who said that?

Previously I have discussed what it is I do within my chosen career and the constant question of “what is GIS” and it would appear that even within the industry that there is still no agreement as to what it really is. Some saying it is computer software and others simply stating that it is a system for analysing geographic data. Here are just a few of the more prominent statements on “What is GIS?”

In the strictest sense, a GIS is a computer system capable of assembling, storing, manipulating, and displaying geographically referenced information, i.e. data identified according to their locations. Practitioners also regard the total GIS as including operating personnel and the data that go into the system.” USGS http://www.usgs.gov/

“A geographic information system (GIS) is a computer-based tool for mapping and analyzing things that exist and events that happen on earth. GIS technology integrates common database operations such as query and statistical analysis with the unique visualization and geographic analysis benefits offered by maps.” ESRI http://www.gis.com/whatisgis/index.cfm

“GIS is an integrated system of computer hardware, software, and trained personnel linking topographic, demographic, utility, facility, image and other resource data that is geographically referenced.” NASA http://gis-www.larc.nasa.gov/public/

 “A Geographic Information System (GIS) can save, search, retrieve and analyze geographic data. GIS is currently being used academically and in many professional fields including environmental science and transportation. Everyday GIS use can be seen in the hand-held Global Positioning Systems (GPS) carried by hikers and fishermen and in navigation systems that many cars have today.” Dr Wansoo http://mappler.net/ilovegis/about/ 

“Put simply, a GIS is a geographical information system, and to make that system work, you need maps and some software. We are one of many organisations producing map data for use in GIS. There are many more companies who then produce GIS software. A GIS can be a simple desktop software package costing a few hundred pounds, running on a standalone PC or it could be a large network of workstations and servers with many different software components costing millions of pounds. Through using a GIS, a simple map can become a very sophisticated information source. A GIS can take in all of the information on a map about features, their uses, names and more and record it in electronic form” Ordnance Survey http://www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/blog/2013/12/what-is-gis/

“A geographic information system (GIS) is a system designed to capture, store, manipulate, analyze, manage, and present all types of geographical data” Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geographic_information_system

If us professionals are confused, then imagine how the learners feel!

So it is a software, a hardware, a method for presenting types of geographical data, a utility, a GPS….no wonder no one understands what we do! In fact, the more I speak with the professionals around me, the more confused I get about what GIS actually is.

A good question I get asked is, “What did people do before GIS?” and my answer is always “Exactly what they do know, only with computers”. That is not to say that GIS is solely computer based, it is more that the term was coined to make using a computer more inviting…..just look at “Word processing” (instead of writing) or “emailing” (instead of posting) or my personal favourite “CAD” (instead of technical drawing), all jargon designed to get people used to the new digital format.

The actual word GIS first appears around 1960 when the federal Department of Forestry and Rural Development. Developed by Dr. Roger Tomlinson, created a new computerised mapping system called the “Canada Geographic Information System” (CGIS) and was used to store, analyze, and manipulate data collected for the Canada Land Inventory – an effort to determine the land capability for rural Canada by mapping information about soils, agriculture, recreation, wildlife, waterfowl, forestry and land use at a scale of 1:50,000. A rating classification factor was also added to permit analysis. As a result of this, Tomlinson has become known as the “father of GIS”, particularly for his use of overlays in promoting the spatial analysis of convergent geographic data

Before 1960 there were computerised mapping software but it is the CGIS which is THE first recorded reference of the term, first written about 1967 in “An introduction to the geo-information system of Canada Land Inventory”

First GIS reference

Now it is interesting to note that although the CGIS was a computer based system, the “Geographic Information System” referred to in the image above was a COMPUTER BASED geographic information system, contrary to the belief that a GIS is solely computer based.

What is interesting to know here, is that the work had been done for many years beforehand manually, a manual system was already in place, though it was so expensive to do, the computer based system HAD to be built. Here is a video from the ESRI website which shows Tomlinson in 1967 selling the need for the system: http://bit.ly/c9CmI5

So lets consider the facts and come to the wrong decision…

I propose this: A Geographical Information System is a system designed to (but not limited to) capture, store, manipulate, analyze, manage, and/or  present all types of geographical data based on a geodetic system

Note the “based on a geodetic system”…I strongly believe that we are missing the essential criterium in our definition of a GIS, tools like QGIS, ArcGIS, GRASS, Google Earth all have a geodetic system at its base, you can still do the analysis/mapping/survey manually using the geodetics but without the geodetics it be merely mapping analysis….I’ll give you a minute to chew that one over but I have thought about this for a while and have sat back watching the industry move and the one thing getting missed in everything is the “Balls

Let’s think about it:

Overlaying an 2 acetates with layers of the same geographic area NOT GIS

Overlaying 2 layers based on a datum (manually or computational)- GIS

Measuring a distance on a web map NOT GIS

Measuring a distance based on a geodetic system GIS

I could go on, though I assume you get the idea, in every example I can see for GIS, it is essential that geodesy is involved…..

Or I could be talking a load of balls….

Feel free to discuss this further 🙂

Nick D

#GISChat the third geotribes unite!

Christmas has been and gone, New Years blurred by and we are now thinking about what the year is going to bring in our work lives. If the predictions are to be believed, we will all be using OpenGeo and geoJSON….not too sure about that myself but I definitely aim to improve my python scripting skills and get more involved in the 3D modelling (current offerings look more lego that real world representations).

A Happy New Year.....
A Happy New Year…..

So with that in mind, I thought that GIS Resolutions for 2014 would be a good topic to discuss, though feel free to suggest something else.

The next #GISChat will be on January 22nd at 9pm (GMT) – It is open to all, no prejudice or stereotypes, just free open chat. We have had a real mix of people so far from new users to old pros, all openly discussing GIS.

To join in, just use the hashtag #GISChat at the end of your tweet on Twitter & that’s it!!

I look forward to seeing you there…..BRING A FRIEND!!


Nick D

#GIS Tips – Let’s talk about the GUI mess

Don’t know how but yesterday turned into a discussion on GIS in education and the assumptions over what it is that children actually want or need. All well and good but at no point was the age of the children discussed or what was referred to in the curriculum – Either way, one thing was clear, no-one would let a child near a current GIS without some changes to the Graphical User Interface (GUI) which, ironically,  fits in with my themes of knowing the audience and making GIS more accessible.

ArcGIS Interface




What were you expecting?

Ignoring that we were talking about making GIS available for kids, there were many comments from students, teachers and GIS users all commenting on how difficult they have found it to get used to the interfaces on GIS software. Well, when I say GIS software, the 11 remarks I got were all related to ESRI’s ArcGIS software, though I am sure the issues are not confined to ArcGIS alone, the proprietary market leader is always going to be the scapegoat……

The issues with the interfaces all related to the complexity of the interface and I have to agree with them a little, it is SCARY! I still remember my first job using ArcGIS 8.x and opening it up and wondering which button I had to use to draw a line. This is nothing, I refused to use QGIS for many years as I couldn’t get my head around having to add your data under several different categories, either vector, raster, MySQL, PostGIS or other, rather than having one button to push….if you are new to the genre, how are you supposed to know what type of data you have?

Expectation is defined by the creator and not the user

Unless you are a regular user of the rather fantastic Massacheusettes Ocean Resource Information System (MORIS), I challenge you to open it up and =;

  1.  Change the Basemap, and
  2.  Add the Area of Interest for long-tailed ducks
  3.  Download the data

Not so easy right? There is and expectation that you are familiar with this form of layout and the data.

This is the current problem inherent in almost all GIS software and a lot of web map systems available today, they are mostly designed with the GIS old timer in mind. To even get started on most systems you need to go on a course or at least get shown the ropes on how it all works.

When you thing about it, how long would you spend trying to use something before you went and tried something else? A minute? 5 minutes? This is what we are doing to potential new users of GIS every day….effectively only letting in the most dedicated or financially comfortable to enter the industry.

The point is?

It doesn’t have to be this way, how easy was it for you to use Google Earth the first time? How hard was it to draw something and send it to your friend? Pretty easy, wasn’t it?

Google Earth was created with no user expectation of prior knowledge, and it shows. The interface is clear and well structured so that it feels like other software which you are familiar with, yet it has a lot of functionality.

The point to this is that, just because we are used to seeing complex interfaces, we don’t have to impose them on our users – We need to be more smart and be more aware of our user. We should create our interfaces based on the USER.

A button that is intuitive to us may not necessarily be intuitive to  someone else. I refer here to buttons like the yellow diamond with a black cross on it or the one with just three dots on (extra points for knowing it) – I am sure people use them because they are trying to use familiar symbols to the major softwares’ offerings, though to a non-GIS user, they mean nothing.

Next time you set up a new web map, have a think about whether all those buttons are necessary, does the user NEED to have all that functionality? Is there a way to auto-hide the tools or have pop-ups which describe the tool button?

Seriously ESRI?

Surprisingly I am not alone in my thoughts it would appear….In the last quarter of last year, ESRI announced ArcGIS for Professionals, one of the key items for me was “tools only when you need them”.

arcgis pro

This image of ArcGIS Professional in action seems to show a much cleaner and clearer interface with less of the buttons we usually see scattered all over the interface. So far, so good.

As a final piece, I just want to say that if we are ever going to make GIS a more welcoming and usable environment, we need to make it more accessible and more inviting. Google Earth has shown us just how easy it is to get the masses interested in the Earth and location, let’s keep that ball rolling and think more about our audience.

Nick D