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GIS and Geography – They are Different!

By February 13, 2017 No Comments

A comment on my recent post got me thinking about how geography and GIS are getting conflated in a way that is not helpful. In this post, I hope to lay out the problem as I see it and start a dialog on a way forward.

Geography is a science.

Simply put, Geography is the science of the earth.

Definition from Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

A science that deals with the description, distribution, and interaction of the diverse physical, biological, and cultural features of the earth’s surface.

Geographers use the scientific method to study a wide variety of subjects from plant migration to evacuation behavior. Physical, cartography, social, geomorphology, political, and cultural are just a few of the many fields geographers study.

Underlying the science of geography are tools that are used to collect and analyze data. GPS, survey equipment, CAD, gauges, databases, statistics, compass, maps, and GIS are some of the variety of tools geographers use.

A GIS is a computer system.

As geographers and others studied the earth, it inevitably led technologists to build computer software that could analyze geographic features, connectivity, and spatial relationships. The term Geographic Information Systems (GIS) was born. What is a GIS?

Definition from National Geographic:

A geographic information system (GIS) is a computer system for capturing, storing, checking, and displaying data related to positions on Earth’s surface.

GIS is a powerful tool for geographers. Just as in any science, as better tools get built, the leaps in understanding and knowledge accelerate. In addition to GIS, GPS became available at a low cost and increasing accuracy. Data about locational and spatial relationships could now be collected and digitized into computer systems. GIS provided the tools to automate, manage and analyze data in a geographic context.

The Good and Bad of GIS.

GIS provides tools that are extremely useful for all sorts of work. Planners, engineers, farmers, surveyors, foresters, intelligence analysts, transportation designers, oceanographers and, biologists are just a few who benefit from using GIS. There is a growing group of GIS specialists who know how to operate and use GIS. The best results from a GIS happen when the subject matter expert works with a GIS specialist to ensure the right tool and data is being used to get an accurate result. GIS specialists with geography backgrounds and knowledge often know how best to do this.

Data – What was the source of the data, what projection, what scale, how was the original data gathered? Is it derived data (i.e. from an overlay.) and if so what parameters were used? What was the source of the core datasets?

Models – What are the right models to use and what parameters are appropriate. Has the algorithm been tested? Can you reproduce results? Did any errors occur during the process? What is the scientific community’s opinion of the model, when should it be used and when is it inappropriate?

Outputs – What is the best way to share a result? What colors to use if it is a map? What category breaks? What scale and symbols to use?

These are just some examples that a trained geographer would investigate. GIS is like any software tool. For example, CAD technicians can build amazing CAD drawings but that does not mean they can design a building. As GIS becomes more available and easier to use, it will become even easier to build incorrect spatial models, maps, and results.

Learn how to use GIS.

GIS is not science. People with knowledge and expertise use a tool like GIS to help them apply their knowledge to solve problems. Geographers are taught many concepts and know how to apply scientific rigor to solving spatial problems. GIS and other tools are invaluable to geographers and any discipline needing to add a spatial component.

Regarding which GIS to use or learn, in many ways, it doesn’t matter. If you are in school, use the tools that are available. You can apply the processes you learn in other software. If you want to be a GIS specialist, find out what software is used by the company you want to work for and take classes in those products. There are great online and locally taught classes available.

Learn how to think geographically.

If you want to learn how to think spatially, apply spatial thinking to problem-solving and apply holistic thinking to big problems – become a geographer (or take geography classes.) You will use GIS, GPS, statistics, CAD and other tools to help you implement the science of geography.

The Future of Geo.

There is an ongoing trend to add “geo” in front of other disciplines. I think that does not drive the ultimate goal of having geographic tools and methods embedded in all relevant disciplines. Examples include geodesign, geointelligence, geospatial, geomarketing, geomedicine, etc. We will know that geographic thinking has come of age when we don’t have “geo” as a separate part of a discipline, it is simply integrated into it.

Until GIS technology is designed to be part of a system and not be the system, true integration of geographic thinking will not happen. What do you think?

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