What Does Geographic Information System Mean Today Computer Science Essay

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Geographic Information System or GIS is generally defined as being a system which 'integrates hardware, software and data capturing, managing, analysing, and displaying all forms of geographically referenced information' (ESRI, no date:online). GIS is a merging of topics such as cartography, database, and statistics, into one single system which can be easily handled and managed by any user.

Such technology allows the user to interact with the data provided through both the visualisation and interpretation, both in a local and global context. It can be viewed both as a creator and manipulator of data depending on its purpose or usage. Nowadays, GIS has become popular and is in constant increase to an extent that in 2009, GIS for Dummies was published by Wiley & Sons. This series, 'For Dummies' produces a series of books which aim in providing non-intimidating guides of various popular topics.

It is difficult, not to say impossible, to identify exactly where it all started, or rather the 'father' or creator of GIS. The origins of GIS may be best subdivided into three main focal points or locations. The technologies of each of these individual organisations, when amalgamated, managed to create GIS. The three focal points are considered to be: Canada Land Inventory, the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and the U.S. Census Bureau.

Since then GIS has grown and spread throughout the world through four phases:

Figure 1: The four different phases of the spread of technological innovation as associated with GIS (Foote and Lynch, 2000:online).

In 1997, a book written by George J. Soete and Prudence S. Adler identifies that one method in order for GIS to grow is to increase a share of our information consciousness as well as providing standards of all sorts especially for metadata. From this statement, it resulted that nowadays, as part of the integration process, GIS has become multidisciplinary (as illustrated in Figure 2). Figure 2 depicts the 'conceptual view of GIS as a wheel' indicating the interaction occurring by the applications applied as a software and the various fields (which more can be added) together with the present technology which plays an important role in the whole processes (Davis, 2001).

Figure 2: GIS technology has many applications in many areas of work (Davis 2001).

St. Martin & Wing (2007) take GIS to a new level examine it from a discourse aspect. It is not the aim of this assignment to provide a detailed description of the various philosophies which constitute the holistic concept of GIS but rather a preview of all its components. Therefore discourse of GIS can be best described as being produced and maintained through the diversification and collection of 'speech acts, texts, institutions, and practices in many locations that share a common understanding and characterization of GIS' (St. Martin & Wing, 2007:237). Furthermore, GIS can be thought upon the basis as being a technology or a science but even relating it to numerous set of practices.

GISystems VS GIScience

The whole GIS saga on whether it can be classified as a system or as a science began in 1992 in a paper written by Michael Goodchild who used the term geographic information science for the first time. The term GIScience evolved as a result of the numerous criticisms of the technology from academics. So what exactly is the difference between GISystems and GIScience? GISystems can be seen as the practical application of the whole technology and needs of a theoretical foundation while GIScience is more of an academic study of the principles involved. GIScience can be defined as the study of science upon development of the tools and techniques used within the GISystem.

GI Science allows us to consider the philosophical, epistemological and ontological contexts of geographic information and GI Systems provide the infrastructure, tools and methods for tackling real world problems within acceptable timeframes (Maguire, 2010:76).

"Demystifying the Persistent Ambiguity of GIS as 'Tool' Versus 'Science'", written by Dawn Wright, Michael Goodchild, and Jim Proctor in 1997, play an important role in the whole discussion on whether GIS is a science or a tool. The paper has been quoted in numerous books and journals as well as periodicals and magazines. They mostly discuss the social implications GIS has through two primary goals: to expose the vulnerability of GIS through discussion and debates which are constantly ongoing by geographers and social theorists, and secondly produce terms with regards to the schema or tool use, tool making, and science (Pickles 1997). Wright et al. (1997) identify that that GIS could be understood by 'three positions along a continuum from tool to science, focusing on the several meanings attached to "doing GIS" rather than to GIS alone' (Wright et al. 1997:354). They establish the following three positions: 1) GIS as tool; 2) GIS as toolmaking; and 3) the science of GIS.

Although these three positions do not capture all of the nuances of argument made during the GIS-L debate, they do represent three major points along a "tool - science" continuum (Wright et al. 1997:354).

GIScience can be considered to have five major components:

Ontology and Representation - includes data modelling and various components which use GIS;

Computation - mainly consists in qualitative data reasoning and computational geometry;

Cognition - is made of cognitive models of geographic phenomena, and human interaction with geographic information and technology;

Applications, Institutions, and Society - includes aqusition of geographic data, quality of geographic information and spatial analysis;

Time; and

Scale. (Obermeyer & Pinto, 1994)

Factors which are influencing negatively the advancement of GIScience are that people attach emotions to more traditional labels and that GIS in the form of a science might be seen as impossible (Wyatt, 2005). In the recent years, GIScience has evolved significantly to an extent that nowadays it is part of the title of several renamed research journals, the organisation of the US University Consortium for Geographic Information Science which focuses on research and lobbying GIScience, a biannually international conference series, and the set-up of numerous projects such as the Varenius Project which provides constant development updates on the matter (Longley, 2005). According to David J. Maguire (2010), a Pro-Vice Chancellor at the Birmingham City University, the debate between GISystems and GIScience is over and there is a consensus about the value of both areas. He further states that it is important that these two areas work in concurrence with one another since science without technology will be inefficient while providing data and results without any scientific methodology can prove to be inappropriate or even incorrect (Maguire, 2010).

In the recent years, GIS has been further subdivided into more divisions and more interpretations of the same phase are emerging. Two examples of the latter are GIStudies and GIServices. GIServices resulted from the development of internet and mobile device technology and which provide easy and real-time access to customizable applications (Nyerges & Piotr, 2010). GIStudies on the other hand is another perspective of GIS which is theoretically based upon the studying of the impacts which result from geographic information and its related technologies upon today's society. It reflects the evolution of GIS through a multi-dimensional perspective point of view from a computer based centralised system to an internet or web based decentralised service; from the technologically dominated view to the increasingly science oriented view, and to a broader societal perspective (Bin, 2010).

To conclude this section, all contexts identified and explained above are receiving increased attention from numerous scholars and academics all over the world. All these contexts can be linked and interact with one another nonetheless it is arduous to abide by all and therefore it is important to choose a focus (Nyerges & Piotr, 2010).

The Wider World contextualisation of GIS

Recently there has been continuous growth in the development of new technologies and which are facilitating the work of a GIS technician through the use of online software or social groups, all origination from the internet.

Recent development of the phenomena of online interactive mapping has been referred to with a plethora of terms, including neogeography, web mapping, volunteered geographic information, ubiquitous cartography, and wiki-mapping (Elwood, 2009).

The new quality of geographical knowledge is associated with the latest technologies of collection, processing, interpretation and representation of spatially distributed geographical information (Antipov 2009).

Google Maps and Google Earth, Microsoft's Virtual Earth, and Wikimapia are some of the many online mapping platforms that are being formed on the internet and which allow users to insert their own personal geographic information on these systems. Such systems allow users to illustrate any geographic information which is easily accessible by other users around the world. Such geographic information can be provided through the use of geotagging, geoblogging, and the continued proliferation of GPS-enabled devices, photographs, narrative text, and video clips (Elwood, 2009).

Neogeography is a new terminology which involves people making use of their own maps, based on their own terms while combining maps available with a number of elements of a toolset (Hudson-Smith et al. 2009). Neogeography is the transition of traditional geography towards digital cartography of spatial experiences through the use of the latest available geospatial technologies (Geospatial Web).

Di-Ann Eisnor, one of the founders of www.platial.com described Neogeography as the application of geography without the need of geographers and that they 'do not conform to the protocols of professional practice' but still can be of use to the geographic sciences (Hudson-Smith et al. 2009:119).

Neogeography, though geospatial technologies, uses a series of data such as snapshots, texts, music, random sounds and noises and even video clips (Figure 3) (Papadimitriou, 2010). However, through the GeospatialWeb, new techniques and processes are being developed such as place-based photoblogging, microblogging and radical cartographic mapping which are all related to neogeography (Figure 4) and allow the user to expand on geographical spaces (Papadimitriou, 2010).

Figure 4: Illustrations depicting geographical space and digital artwork which result from neogeography (Papadimitriou 2010).

Figure 3: Technologies contributing to neogeography (Papadimitriou 2010).

Geospatial resources include both data and services and have become more efficient through the use of geoportals which is considered to be 'an open system that supports the discovery, exchange, advertisement and delivery of geospatial resources on the Web' (De Longueville, 2010:301). Goodchild (2009:1041) identifies five potential impacts of advances in geospatial technologies on the human society:

'Know where everything is, at all times' - the use of tracking devices on everything such as animals and retail times;

'The problems of determining position indoors, and of tracking moving individuals' - such technology is evolving and will work effectively for pedestrian as they currently do for vehicles;

'The citizen will play a much greater role than in the past' - people will now become both consumers and producers of geographic information;

'Systems that are easy to use and open to all' - such systems are being released such as Google Earth and Google Maps which enable the user to interact with the system through an easy and efficient method;

'Real-time, continuous monitoring' - technology that is increasing about dynamics and change, and no longer considered as a snapshot.

Components that make GIS

GIS is a very powerful tool but surely cannot be considered as being a stand-alone system. Therefore, it is essential that the components making up GIS are considered and evaluated in order to strengthen the system. Like any matter in which researchers and scholars form part, there is a disagreement on the components that make up GIS and therefore it is fundamental that one identifies the different components and how they differ.

The most basic components of GIS can be defined as being hardware, software and human resources. This is considered by the Waupaca County Land Information Office (no date:online). The latter considers hardware as input and output devices together with storage systems, the software as the application packages and human resources being operational staff, technical professional staff, and management personnel. However, such a representation is raw in nature and therefore further expansion is required.

Gomarasca (2009) and the Volusia County Government (no date:online) establish that the GIS main components are: hardware, software, data and organization context or liveware/people. This provides a broader defining of the components of GIS than the latter since it includes data. Data is considered as being the heart of GIS and provides the basis for any research.

Procedures or Methods is another component which can be included in the above four. This component is included in the definitions generated by the James Madison University of America (2004:online), the GIS Development website tutorials (Cowen, 1997:online), and Gopi, Sathikumar & Madhu (2008). This type of component divisionis the mostly commonly used and consist in dividing GIS into five components. The procedures or methods is that the models and operating practices are unique from one organisation or entity to another. Furthermore, the system chosen is dependanble upon the available or selected data . If this component is not implemented, therefore the end result will be an unsuccessful system within the organisation.

A further and more holistic approach is to consider that there are six different components. Longley et al. (2001) identifies the following: Network, People, Software, Data, Hardware, and Procedures. In this case, network is an additional component which the authors consider as being the msot fundamental of all the components as is the linkage between all the other components (Figure 5). Network provides a rapid method of communicating or sharing information between people aorund the globe. A form of network, and also the most common, is the internet. The internet or network may be considered as being the core to most aspects of GIS use thus leading to a complete estrangement of standalone systems.

Figure 5: The six components of GIS according to Longley et al. (2001).

Davis (2001) explains that there are at least six primary componenets of GIS and unlike other authors, illustrates them into a hierarchical or structural pyramid according to their importance (Figure 6). The pyramid illustrates people at the base since they are considered as the foundation of GIS and therefore the most important component. He explains futher that all the named components are important but hardware is considered least important especially when developing a GIS operation. In the pyramid, the author includes: organisation and people, applications, methodology, data, software, and hardware. Two new components are being created:

Applications which are defined as the uses, questions or customers of GIS and includes also the purpose for its productions.

Methodology is the procedures, techniques and ways of using GIS and its data into the numerous available applications.

Figure 6: The Pyramid of GIS components according to importance, from bottom to top view (Davis 2001).

A different and unique model identifying the different components of GIS is being proposed by UNIGIS. The model consists of six different GIS components (Figure 7) which are:





Data; and

Body of Ideas.

This can be considered as being a combination of all the previously identified and explained models and therefore illustrating its ultimate validity as a model. It can be viewed as being similar to the model being proposed by Davis (2001), but with two major changes. The first change is that the software and hardware are grouped together under the 'technology' component. It is quite a rational and suitable change since it is a known fact that both hardware and software must work together in order to process data correctly and efficiently (Dixit and Gupta, 2010). Furthermore, it would be useless having powerful hardware but then not the software to implement commands efficiently. Technology is defined as being 'the science of the application of knowledge to practical purposes' (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, 2010:online) and therefore it is fundamental that such a term is included in the components of GIS.

The other new component included, which is considered to be a major one by the UNGIS model, is the 'body of ideas'. It is considered as the 'linkages in the knowledge that lie behind a GIS application'. Recognizing the ideas that lie being a GIS application and identifying them is a fundamental component since it provides further knowledge of the system mentioned.

Figure 7: The UNIGIS model depicting the different GIS components.

Ultimate Goal: Can GIS be defined?

When studying, researching or reading on a particular subject, it is important that one identifies what exactly the subject involves and what it entails. Therefore it is essential that in this assignment a definition of the term Geographic Information System (GIS) be tackled. According to Clarke (2003), GIS cannot be given one single definition which reveals or identifies all its aspects, but rather a collection of definitions which can all be considered as correct. Numerous researchers or GIS experts have tried to define GIS and provide a plausible description of what the subject entails in a few sentences.

The following definitions are clear examples of what GIS was thought of in the late 1980's but however can be considered as being the basis of every GIS definition that follows:

GIS a system for capturing, storing, checking, manipulating, analysing and displaying data which are spatially referenced to the Earth (Environment, 1987:132).

A system of hardware, software, data, people, organizations and institutional arrangements for collecting, storing analyzing, and disseminating information about areas of the earth (Dueker & Kjerne, 1989:7).

As the subject in discussion developed further through time, so did the ideas and thoughts of the scholars.

An information system that is designed to work with data referenced by spatial or geographic coordinates. In other words, a GIS is both a database system with specific capabilities for spatially-referenced data, as well as a set of operations for working with the data (Star & Estes, 1990:2-3).

The definition by Prickles (1995) identifies that GIS can be linked with science as well as with society and even culture. This is an important factor in the evolution of GIS as GISceince became more popular among scholars.

GIS is a set of tools, technologies, approaches and ideas that are vitally embedded in broader transformation of science, society and culture (Pickles, 1995:4).

Modern and more recent definitions of GIS provide a more holistic reality as is illustrated below:

A geographic information system is a group of procedures that provide data input, storage and retrieval, mapping and spatial analysis for both spatial and attribute data to support the decision-making activities of the organization (Grimshaw, 2000:33).

Geographic Information System (GIS) is a computer assisted system for acquisition, storage, analysis and display of spatial information and related attributes. Spatial data are those having location with respect to the earth, generally represented in terms of latitude and longitude. (Sajeevan, 2007:736).

A system for capturing, storing, checking, integrating, manipulating, analyzing, and displaying data which are spatially referenced to the Earth. This is normally considered to involve a spatially referenced computer database and appropriate applications software (Fazal, 2008:7).

A geographic information system is a collection of map systems, geographic data, routines and human knowledge and experience that makes it possible to produce, analyse and present the geography around us with the aid of digital technology (Grinderud et al. 2009:34)

To a matter of fact, GIS definitions are always changing and it cannot be agreed upon one single definition with all factors together. This is due that GIS is a broad subject and has proven that it will always expand into a more vast subject matter, so much that it will include further topics. Due to this, GIS is said to change its form through time.


GIS can be best described as a discipline which combines various data types and techniques from numerous professions and academic disciplines and which applications include diversified fields. Recently, new technologies have been developed which are facilitating the usage of GIS through a number of online software and even social groups. The internet played an important role in the evolving and the modernizing of GIS. An advantage nowadays is that with the use of technology the tools and systems available can be easily used by non-professionals to integrate data while providing geographic information facilitation in creating and exploring the same system with no spatial and temporal limitations. The GIS discussion to whether it can be established as a system or science has been going for the past decade and is constantly on-going. However, there is a concession as it is agreed that both are of equal importance and are concurrent with each other. Furthermore, with the modernisation, evolving and transformation of GIS more interpretations will follow such as GIStudies and GIServices. GIServices.