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


  1. Not wanting to stick my two peneth in too much but you have missed the whole debate of the s in gis relating to science covering the mathematical and geodetic elements of the subject. So GIS is a science in its own right.

    I’ll leave that one for you to ponder on 🙂

    1. Steve, the “S”, as explained, stands for “system”. The term “system” may serve a plethora of purposes – it may be a method, a process or in the case of CGIS, it is a set of computer processes.
      It is easy to confuse the word “system” & computer,,,,…Though keep in mind that you may have a system for winning the lottery, doesn’t mean that you model the potential numbers on your computer every time.

  2. My beef is not with the “I” or the “S” it’s with the “G” because the geography is what is often left out of the discussion. A GIS is a means to do geography and too many GIS “experts” don’t know much about geography.

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