Geographically Oriented Computer Technology Computer Science Essay

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The term Geographical Information System (GIS) and it is frequently applied to geographically oriented computer technology, integrated systems used in substantive applications and, more recently, a new discipline which is generating massive interest worldwide. For a number of reasons, GIS is more difficult to define than might at first be imagined. Although there has been some debate about the origin of the term and date of initiation of work in the field, it is clear that GIS are relatively recent phenomena. GIS is a late bloomer among applications of computing technology in part because it is so demanding, and simply could not be supported in any useful fashion by the resources available in the typical computer system. In addition, the spatial nature of geographical data is not easily accommodated within the essentially linear structure of conventional computers and early input and output devices lacked the spatial resolution necessary to deal with these kinds of data. 2









Power of Maps 6

Making Better Decision 6

Planning Of Projects 6

Improving Organization Integration 6




Hardware technology 7

Software Technology 8

Applications programming 8

Database development 8









The term Geographical Information System (GIS) and it is frequently applied to geographically oriented computer technology, integrated systems used in substantive applications and, more recently, a new discipline which is generating massive interest worldwide. For a number of reasons, GIS is more difficult to define than might at first be imagined. Although there has been some debate about the origin of the term and date of initiation of work in the field, it is clear that GIS are relatively recent phenomena. GIS is a late bloomer among applications of computing technology in part because it is so demanding, and simply could not be supported in any useful fashion by the resources available in the typical computer system. In addition, the spatial nature of geographical data is not easily accommodated within the essentially linear structure of conventional computers and early input and output devices lacked the spatial resolution necessary to deal with these kinds of data.


The initiative for developing software application for the analysis, storage and display of geographic data was approached during the advent of cheap and powerful computers. A large number of these software applications belong to a group of software known as Geographic Information Systems (GIS). There have been many definitions that has been proposed for what constitutes a GIS. Each definition conforms to the particular task that is being performed but the widely used definition is Michael F. Goodchild, University of California Santa Barbara definition and it states "a geographic information system (GIS) is an information system that is designed to work with data referenced by spatial or geographic coordinates, he further stated that a GIS is both a database system with specific capabilities for spatial referenced data, as well as a set of operations for working with the data",(April 2001).

The keyword used in the Geographic Information Systems is geography and by basic definition is "the science that studies and describes the surface of the earth and its physical, biological, political, economic, and demographic characteristics and the complex interrelations among them",(, 2010). On the earth surface, every component has its geographic feature that classifies them and they are categorized in three basic feature types namely: point data, linear data and areal data.

Every geographic phenomenon can be represented by these outlined features.

POINT DATA - exist when a feature is associated with a single location. Examples are: an oil well, a weather station etc.

LINEAR DATA - exist when a feature is described by open string of spatial coordinates i.e. an environment or feature that cannot be determined precisely but measured as it expands. Examples are: rivers, pipelines, roads etc.

AREAL DATA - exist when a feature is described by a closed string of spatial coordinates i.e. an environment or feature that can be determined immediately. Examples are: forest stands, soil classification areas, administrative boundaries, climate zone.

The core of a GIS is data and when describing geographic data, it can be identified as spatial. An example of spatial data is a location of a hospital and the detailed information of that hospital such as: the name, amount of wards, specialties makes it an attribute data and these data are what is used in a GIS. Furthermore, spatial data are featured by references that model the coordinates of the location on earth either by geographic coordinates, map projection or legal surveys description.

Geographic information systems compared to other information systems is diverse, reasons being that it focuses on data collection/ analysis and a very useful tool for decision making of organized data. The great appeal of GIS stems from their ability to put together immense quantities of information about the environment and provide a powerful repertoire of analytical tools to explore this data and make decision. There are few technologies that support GIS and some of them are as follows:

Remote Sensing - can be defined as collection of data from a distance and this is one of the most important tools used in GIS. It is used to monitor or measure phenomena found on the earth and its task can only be performed by mechanical devices known as remote sensors. These devices have improved capability to receive and record information without physical contact and are often positioned away from the object of interest by using planes, satellites etc. Basically how they interact or measure with the object is by recording object's transmission of electromagnetic energy from reflecting/ radiating surfaces.

There are varieties of remote sensing imagery sub-applications used in GIS for agriculture, forestry, city planning, oil exploration, archaeological investigations and military observation among other uses. For example, "foresters use aerial photographs for preparing forest cover maps, locating possible access roads, and measuring quantities of trees harvested. Specialized photography using color infrared film has also been used to detect disease and insect damage in forest trees." (GIS Inc Press, 2004).

Mobile Mapping - as implied, it has with technological use of mobile devices for mapping, and with the awareness of mobile devices in recent times; the initiative of mapping has been applied in GIS. Mobile applications have been designed to fit in with the structure of GIS i.e. data can be retrieved anytime anywhere. It is also customizable to fit with the organizational structure.

These technologies when observed are to do with mapping. Over the years, the use of traditional mapping which was painstakingly created by hand had many disadvantages and this made it even less practical in decision making; one of major disadvantages was "change" i.e. any slight change required the creation of a new map.

In the year 1971, GIS was introduced by Prof. Roger Tomlinson, it has been gladly accepted and used extensively through petroleum exploration to Urban Planning. There is more to what GIS can provide such as "a catalog company selling children's clothes would want to find ZIP Codes not only around their store, but those ZIP Codes with many young families with relatively high income. Or, public health officials might not only want to map physicians, but also map the numbers of physicians per 1,000 people in each census tract to see which areas are adequately served, and which are not", (, April 2010).

Fundamentally, I will explain my understanding of GIS and by doing that I will discuss the components, advantages and functionality of GIS then address the issue of the use of GIS in business. For a GIS to be operated it requires these five components active and they include:








The simplistic term used to illustrate hardware in GIS is a technological infrastructure that supports the GIS implementation. This infrastructure could be a central workstation which is very expensive or a centralized web server which requires a minimal investment. Both infrastructures require network technology and database connectivity.


Geographic information needs to be stored, analyzed and displayed and that can only be done with GIS software. In categorization of geographic information, each software or software should be able to provide the stated objectives and this can only be done in subsystems and there are four types of subsystems which are:

Data input subsystem: allows the capture, collection and transformation of spatial data into digital form. The input of this data in this subsystem can be derived from aerial photographs, hard copy maps, remotely sensed images etc.

Data storage and retrieval subsystem: organizes the data (spatial and attribute) for quick retrieval and analysis. It also permits swift and precise updates to the database. In terms of data management, it uses database management systems for attribute data and proprietary file formats to maintain spatial data.

Data manipulation and analysis subsystem: is basically noted as the heart of GIS because it allows the execution and classification of spatial and attribute procedure to generate derived information.

Data Output subsystem: allows the user generate graphical displays usually maps and reports representing derived information products.


The most important component in GIS is data and there are two types of data in GIS which were already stated: spatial and attribute data and this reflects to the traditional data found on a map. The spatial data can be stored digitally in three basic model types and they are:




Diagram 1.0 from BioGIS

Each of these models has its sequences in which they are stored in the database. The vector data as implied used vertices to define a linear segment. Each vertex consists of X&Y coordinates. There are two vector data storage patterns are usually used in GIS and they are:

Topologic data structure - can be easily derived because it has spatial relationship between the geographic features.

Computer aided drafting (CAD) data structure - listing of elements not features to define the geographic features.

For the raster data model, the geographic area is divided in cells identified by row and column. Most spatial data are captured in vector format it is hereby necessary the data be converted to raster data structure; this is called vector raster conversion. The use of raster data model allow for complicated arithmetical modeling processes while the vector data model is constrained by the capabilities of a relational database management system (RDMS).

Diagram 1.1 from BioGIS

Image data is often represented by pictorial or graphical data i.e. orthophotos, plan documents, etc. It is usually used as a graphically attribute but it must be converted to a raster or perhaps vector to be used analytically with the GIS.


It required for every system that people be involved to manage and develop plans to which will be applied in the real world. This also includes the users who maintain the system and others who use it to perform their everyday work.


For a GIS to be effective, it requires a well designed plan uniquely for every organization.


Power of Maps

Making Better Decision

Planning of projects

Improving organizational integration

Power of Maps

GIS is known as high-tech equivalent of a map or otherwise called mapping software. Making maps in GIS is whole lot flexible than traditional automated mapmaking approaches. Existing hard copy maps can be digitized and translated into GIS.

Making Better Decision

As the old adage "quality information leads to quality decision" well in GIS, it is true. Geographic information system is not just a tool that collects, analyzes data but also a tool that map data in support of the decision making process. It assists decision makers to focus on the real issue rather than trying to understand the data. Multiple scenarios can be evaluated effectively because GIS products can be produced swiftly.

Planning Of Projects

One of the many advantage of GIS is the detailed planning of project, having a large spatial component whereby the problem analysis is prerequisite at the start of the project. It will empower site managers to participate fully in the planning and coordinating activities of their own site.

Improving Organization Integration

GIS facilitate interdepartmental information sharing and communication because it has the ability to links datasets together by geography, by using a shared database, one department can benefit from the other. This is one of the benefits that management of an organization, this way productivity is enhanced, redundancy is reduced.

Possibly the first question asked when learning GIS is what are the best GIS? And the answer is quite simple, there are no best GIS. When evaluating the functionality of GIS software it could be bias because one gets a different feedback from using one system or another. Comparing similar functions between systems is often confusing. Like any software, ultimately some do particular tasks better than others, and also some lack functionality compared to others. "Due mostly to this diverse range of different architectures and the complex nature of spatial analysis no standard evaluation technique or method has been established to date" (Derrick Williams, 2004).

"Any GIS should be evaluated strictly in terms of the potential user's needs and requirements in consideration of their work procedures, production requirements, and organizational context", (Winchester, 2005). A logical and systematic approach as such is consistent with existing information systems (IS) planning methodologies and will ultimately provide a mechanism for a successful evaluation process.


A GIS is practically designed to collect huge volumes of geographic information. As the volume of available information continues to increase the more sophisticated to sift through volumes, precision and consistency will become increasingly important as well.

In order to appreciate the reasons for including certain types of functions in GIS it is necessary to understand the basic principles of geographical database design. In the design of geographic database, after the conceptual database structure, requirement analysis are met and is implemented in the computer medium, to come up with future expectation development abilities must be taken into account during the conceptual database design stages. The reasons are that the most significant investment in the implementation of a GIS is in the creation phase.

Changes on the earth's surface may be relatively slow and difficult to detect, the need for updating the results from the slightest change from geographic features mustn't conflict and it is hereby necessary it produces precise result and that is where GIS software is introduced. It is not uncommon for GIS software systems to have several functions because of their general purpose nature.

Data manipulation is one key area of GIS functionality since it allows data from disparate sources to be converted to a common format for analysis. This process is sometimes termed data integration. The most important operations are restructure, generalize and transform.

Restructure involves changing the data structure for the geographical and/or attribute data. In the case of geographical data, this usually means converting data between one of the vectors and one of the tessellation structures. Generalizing involves replacing attribute values by their mean. Transformation of geographical data involves affine transformation of scale, rotation, translation and inversion and curvilinear transformation of the type used to change between map projections.


During the first decade when GIS was introduced as a tool for business which was about 20-25 years ago, it had a relatively small reputation and many didn't understand the benefits it offered. Recently, while estimates vary, it has been recorded that GIS has been growing very rapidly around 25-35 per cent per year over the past five years.

The growing number of commercial organization that applies GIS technology in particular fields has been explosive these past few years. Such fields include photo interpretation, urban and regional planning, real estate, vehicle navigation, utilities, energy, mining, forestry, environmental planning military/defense, cartography, civil engineering, transportation, sanitary engineering, communication and many more. This has created many employment opportunities in the market.

The opportunities that a GIS offers doesn't stop with these mentioned fields but evolves to consultation. A significant number of organization or individuals now offer consultation to various aspects of GIS. The services offered include: project design, system and database design, project supervision, benchmarking testing, advice on special problems in GIS and so on. In some cases, these consultants offer the capability to execute the plans they devise e.g. a complete implementation of a system.

There are a large number of international organizations with interest in GIS. The most prestigious, the International Council of Scientific Unions, ICSU, is a complex organization consisting of 20 international scientific unions, 75 national members, associates and observers and 26 scientific associates (International Council of Scientific Union 1999) has initiated the international geosphere biosphere program, IGBP with the use of GIS has the backbone. This programme has three research themes: "Documentation and prediction of global change; Improving out understanding of interactive phenomena in the total earth system; and accessing the effects of global change that will cause large scale and important modifications in the availability of renewable and non-renewable resources" (International Council of Scientific Unions 1999).

A Geographic information system can be an important tool in each of these four themes as it can provide the visualization and parameterization about spatially associated existence or structure.

The market forces and healthy commercial competition are a primary driving force causing thinkers to forge ahead with new ideas, concepts and techniques in any technological field to promote GIS globally.


Hardware technology

Hardware development continues to be a major driving force in the development of GIS. The major trend in this area is towards less expensive, faster and smaller computers; in the year 2000 these are the workstations of the 20-50MIPS variety. By the 2015, these are expected to become 50-250 MIPS workstations at a cost affordable for personal computing. These computers, together with file servers and very large capacity storage devices that can be rapidly networked and in the future, they will operate as nodes within a vast computer and data management environment.

Most hardware development is of general purpose computing machinery, which is then applied to GIS. Only a few hardware devices are completely GIS specific, but some devices, such as plotters and scanners, find especially important applications in the GIS field. The marketing of computer hardware for GIS use has become increasingly oriented to an open system approach in which buyers are purchasing a variety of independent system devices and avoiding the overhead costs of solutions in which a single vendor supplies all the hardware for a complete GIS.

Software Technology

Software used in a GIS may be GIS specific, although some software, such as DBMS software may be a general purpose product applied to GIS. The development of GIS-specific software, may be a general purpose product applied to GIS. The development of GIS-specific software may represent the 'purest' primary GIS business, since the product has no other application GIS and is essential to the existence of a GIS.

Because of intense competition and rapid technical developments, the most critical factor in an organization's commercial success in GIS software development is probably a programme of continuous research and development, together with the creation of popular user applications. Reputation among users, the number of installed systems, the quality of software documentation and user training, and the organization's ability to deal with its customers/users are also quite critical to commercial success. To meet these demands, a successful GIS software developer probably requires staff trained in computer science, geography, cartography and a range of related disciplines. As the software becomes more sophisticated, staff specializing in the particular fields to which the GIS software is to be applied also becomes valuable.

Some commercial GIS software systems are hardware specific, others run on a variety of hardware systems. Similarly, some systems interface with a variety of Database Management system(DBMS), graphics software, and so on, while others offer less flexibility. A variety of strategies are used in coping with the problems which portability or lack of it, presents.

The organization and functions of a commercial firm supplying GIS software are similar to firms supplying other kinds of software. These include functions like software development, quality assurance, documentation, installation, training, field support and marketing. Sales of software of major GIS often involve considerable consulting, often by third parties. Sales and distribution seems to be most effective when potential users receive actual demonstrations of the capabilities of the software, although with the wider distribution of GIS, more potential buyers are familiar with GIS capabilities before they contact software vendors. Programming support and hotline support are important in the GIS field because the technology are rapidly diversifying. User groups are still useful because of these same factors, but they are already specializing by application type, hastened by the rapid increase in the number of GIS users in the world.

Applications programming

General purpose GIS software must often be adapted to particular applications (urban planning, forestry etc.). This application may be accomplished by the user, by the original software vendor who offers pre-packaged applications, by using 'Marco' languages(which make it easier for users to write their own application programs), or by a custom programming services. A major trend in recent years has been the development of third party organizations which provide applications assistance to users.

Database development

The largest cost in most GIS continues to be the database. In recent years, scanning and conversion from existing automated files have also become important. Nevertheless, no present technology permits easy and inexpensive capture of previously mapped data, let alone spatial data in other non-digital forms.

For this and other reasons, there is an enormous backlog of geographical data which various organizations would like to put into digital form. A growing number of firms is providing complete assistance in the processes of database design, data editing, database creation and related services. Many of these firms specialize, some working chiefly with natural resource data, others with urban data, and so on.

Many GIS are now being designed for continuous updating through transactions, presenting problems in GIS administration which are now under intense study.

"Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have been generating massive interest worldwide. Their rapid rate development, commercial orientation and diversity have not assisted in producing a clear and unambiguous definition of GIS. The term GIS can be applied to computer technology, integrated systems for the use in substantive applications, as well as new discipline. Estimates of the size and importance of the GIS market suggest that it is of national and global significance and that it is growing at a rapid rate."(D.J. Maguire, 2004)


The vast majority of people who could usefully employ GIS technology still know little or nothing about it. The message about its usefulness is still not being heard in the places where the technology is most needed such as in the third world.

Potential buyer and user of GIS technology continue to be confused and in some cases turned away from GIS use by various advertising and sales practices of some commercial GIS Firms. Some GIS perform badly to some users and for those that listen to them are convinced that the promise of GIS technology is no more than a deception.

These problems could only be eliminated if potential users were properly informed about the technology, if objective tests were observed and professional standards of practices were also observed. But beyond this, all sectors of the GIS field need to work harder at explaining what GIS technology is, what it can do, and how it can be effectively and inexpensively employed.


In every technological system, problems are bound to occur and GIS is no different but, perhaps paradoxically these are likely to be resolved much sooner than the problems mentioned above. This technical problem includes the difficulties in connecting hardware and software from different vendors; the difficulties in interconverting data created in different ways; the data automation problem; and so on.


The internal success of the home-grown GIS system during the mid-90's created a growing enthusiasm and wave of demands by the business for more. More usability, more data integration, more analysis tools and less reliance upon a small number of highly skilled technical guru's.

The shift from self-build to off-the-shelf products was a conscious one made in the 1998-9 by Shell Petroleum Company. Despite ESRI (Environmental System Research Institute) being the world market leader in GIS, Shell's evaluation process and decision to adopt their tools was still not taken lightly. Shell's drive was to establish GIS in the mainstream, to be easily available on everyone's desktop. The selection of GIS had to fit Shell's global IT infrastructure - Microsoft NT and Oracle databases. GIS data inter-operability through a common database and application suite was essential.

The adoption of ESRI's product suite with ArcGIS (integrated collection of GIS software) as the main product fulfilled the requirements to fit into Shell's mainstream IT infrastructure when coupled with data storage in a vendor independent database such as Oracle Spatial.


Shell has focused to implement ESRI software suite married closely to underlying databases. The quest has been to standardize GIS around the globe and improve utilization of existing data to glean new insights through GIS. Despite struggles and tensions as we learn the new IT tools and skills to drive the deployment, there have been several notable successes which best depict the achievements made.

The unique Enterprise solution utilizes Microsoft .Net, out-the-box ArcGIS and minimal ArcObjects customization. Shell's data is held in one Oracle Spatial database. Third Party data is managed external to Shell and hosted via the Internet to ensure an up to-date view of industry activities, removing the need to duplicate data management (and IT) services within Shell. The end-users utilize the system and information via thin-client Citrix hosted environment for global access within Shell's global IT environment.


GIS has rapidly become a global system within Shell, with local challenges becoming global challenges. The plans ahead focus on improving further the efficiency and effectiveness with which the business can make informed decisions based upon our geo-information assets. This will require quicker and smarter use of available geo-information, tools and expertise. For the short and medium term Shell PC GIS efforts will concentrate on:

• Globally integrating geographic data and documents. Harness information held within Shell's corporate memory that is currently managed in library systems and non-graphic data repositories. Global library workflow processes must be altered and document classification taxonomy supplemented by geo-coding. End users will benefit by being able to carry out "Google" type queries on the Internet to quickly mine relevant data also using the geographic component in the search engine.

• Reducing and hopefully eliminate the need for data conversion (and individual preparation) between CAD and GIS to display, query and manipulate spatial and attribute data. With support of Vendors further streamline two-way data interface between CAD and GIS.

• Sharing of GIS data between the various sub surface applications through a common format (e.g. ArcSDE) or 'connector' such as OpenSpirit.

• Improving efficiency of data sharing and GIS data manipulation/querying through wider adoption of web based services (ArcGIS Server, ArcIMS) on a global scale.

• Implementing a corporate, global Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI), using ESRI's GIS technology, standardizing data models and workflows across Shell. Publish yet more geographic information through the global SAP portal front-end.

• Ensuring geo reference integrity within and between the various GIS enabled applications in use in Shell. Use certified coordinate conversion engines and globally accepted geodetic parameter databases, for example APSG/EPSG (Americas/European Petroleum Survey Group).


GIS is an enabling computer-based technology which allows its practitioners to collect, analyse and display spatial data. Those capabilities will lead to needs for vast spatial databases which will form one part of an information infrastructure which all levels of government, private enterprise and individual citizens will profit from utilizing in the future. The potential for use of GIS as a tool for bettering mankind is staggering. Not surprisingly, professionals leading the developments in this technology seek the opportunities to meet and discuss the major challenges, to compare their research results and to chart future directions for the creation, maintenance and use of these databases and the invention and extension of analytical procedures useful when applied to these data. Usually professional membership organizations, through annual conventions and publications, provide these opportunities and university departments provide the basic education for a cadre of new professionals in the technology.

The rapid rise in interest in GIS fostered by rapid development in technology has occurred faster than existing professional organizations and academic departments have been able to react. Only now is it possible to begin to talk about bringing the institutional homes for the GIS professional into synchrony with developments in the technology.

Technological developments in the computer industry for the moment continue to occur at a rapid rate. Because of this a spirit of cooperation among GIS professionals enables individuals to maximize the accessibility to the latest technological advances. If technological advancement slows the spirit of cooperation, it may not continue. It is not absolutely necessary for a technologically driven tool to have its own society or association.

Today GIS hardware, and for the most part GIS software is sufficient. Trained professional user and accurate, accessible, compatible data sets are the weak links in the current GIS environment. More universities should provide the training and it has been proven to be the manufacturer's advantage to donate hardware and software to established university curricula.

The commercial sector of the GIS field is just beginning its period of most rapid growth. Like the rest of the field, the commercial sector is just emerging from its pioneering phase. As information technology improves and diversifies, users will increasingly be able to mix freely with GIS. On the one hand, the decade or two just ahead may see commercial GIS further emerge as a recognizable industry; on the other hand, the technology may become so pervasive that it "disappears", becoming transparent to users in the same ways as that of the telephone, the computer and computer graphics. At present, the former course seems the more likely.

The commercial sector of the GIS field is increasingly recognized as a major player in the field as a whole. It provides competitive and market mechanisms and creative forces that can be channeled to make great progress, if parochialism, protectionism, nationalism, and unfair forms of competition can be avoided and open, global markets for GIS technology can be created.