What is GIS?

Acronyms are a curious thing.  They can be handy replacements for common terms that are too laborious to repeat.  They can also be a crutch for describing subjects that are too complex or abstract to fully express with clarity.  Confusing these two roles is subtly misleading.  What one person thinks is a rich and deeply nuanced subject, someone else may assume to be shorthand for a far shallower concept.

GIS is like that.  This term is often perceived to mean software that can produce a visual map.  That's a bit like saying TV is just a television set.  What TV delivers is really the result of a complex web of equipment, technologies, skills, information and preparation that magically comes together in a meaningful way.  Or not so meaningful — that potential certainly exists with GIS as well.

GIS commonly refers to a "Geographic Information System".  To tease a little more substance out of that term, let's unravel it word by word:

Geographic is the adjectival form of "geography" which comes from the Greek words geo (Earth) and graph (to write).  It was first used by Eratosthenes (276–195 BC) to mean the practice of describing our planet in an empirical way.  Eratosthenes was no slouch at this either.  He not only understood that the world was spherical but he also measured and mapped it with impressive accuracy.  It is interesting to note that "graphic" is a more inclusive idea here than simply drawing a picture.  It is about preserving textual, tabular, visual and symbolic information for future use.

Information is from the Latin verb informare meaning to shape or to form something.  It very much means to shape the mind or to form an idea or impression from otherwise disassociated facts.  The -ion suffix simply forms a noun denoting an action or condition from such a verb.  Because English is a Romantic language, we almost can't escape the use of "form" to convey this seminal idea of active transition from bits and pieces into a comprehensible whole.

System goes back to the Greeks as well, combining syn- (together) with the root of histanai (cause to stand).  It clearly means an assemblage of interrelated things that act in concert.  Actions are what systems do.  Any recognition of cause and effect implies the existence of some kind of system.

Putting this all back together, we could say that GIS is really an active effort to shape our thinking about the Earth.  That's actually a very nice definition.  It is particularly appropriate because the effectiveness of that effort is what is critical to the accuracy and depth of our insight.

Geography itself is a fascinating interdisciplinary subject that reaches far beyond cartography.  It deals with all of the spatial and temporal features, phenomena and processes that mold our planet.  Physical geography (or physiography) is the scientific study of the lithosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere and atmosphere.  Human geography deals with the patterns and processes with which our species creates its massive footprint; sometimes called the "anthroposphere".  The interaction between these physical and human dimensions is where GIS may be most valuable.  Environmental management, resource sustainability, political ecology and emergency response are clearly concerns that demand our full attention and most skillful efforts.

SpherAware is dedicated to the premise that our collective awareness of these spheres cannot be neglected.  GIS can help, especially if we embrace the the idea that GIS requires the active distillation of spatial data into meaningful information.  Since this challenge involves all 4 dimensions of space and time, some key concepts and techniques are needed to measure, record, assemble, analyze and display anything useful.  These concerns might be summarized as follows:

  • position - where in the world (and when) does this datum occur?
  • persistence - how can positions be organized and recorded for optimal use?
  • relationship - what patterns can be discovered in a collection of positions?
  • projection - why does the representation of spherical surfaces matter so much?
  • performance - which methods produce the most effective and efficient results?

Implicit in that summary is a huge reliance on data management and manipulation.  That is what GIS is fundamentally about.  It is analogous to all of the production effort that goes into a TV show.  And a map is only the show -- it is simply the lens through which GIS is seen.  Looking under the hood and understanding the inner workings of geographic information systems provides a richer experience and a deeper appreciation for the meaning that any map is trying to convey.

Posted in Geography on Aug 1, 2016