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The birth of the GIS

The gist of GIS

It’s one of the most fundamental tools in the geospatial scientists’ arsenal – and it has had a fascinating history.

A GIS – or geographic information system – is built to capture, manipulate, store and manage geographical data. It’s a key way to analyse trends, patterns and behaviours as they relate to a specific location or locations. For example, a GIS system might tell us which parts of a city are most densely populated, furnishing us with the information we need to know where to build key service facilities like hospitals or schools.

While the most famous early geographic information systems were developed in Paris and then London in the 19th century as means of tracking and managing cholera outbreaks – find out more about that interesting story on our website here – it wasn’t until the mid 20th century that GIS as we might recognise it began to flourish.

GIS mapping without a roadmap

Today, geographic information systems are generally represented digitally, with complex data sets being accessible across web and cloud computing, and the ever-connected Internet of Things affording experts more opportunities to push the capabilities of GIS further forward.

But before the 1960s, maps were a more simple affair, as were geographic information systems. Without computers to aid the mapping process, we were often in the dark. 

Photozincography, a technique developed in the early 20th century that gave cartographers the chance to separate out different layers from a map, had opened up new avenues to cartographers and spatial experts – but they couldn’t analyse these data sets with the level of rigour that they desired. Sieve mapping was another pre-computer development, which utilised transparent layers of geographical information on light tables, but they brought with them their own issues of inaccuracy and usability.

But a revolution was just around the corner…

Enter Roger Tomlinson 

Roger Tomlinson, the pioneer of the computerised GIS

The first computerised GIS came about in 1963, and the man responsible for it – and for the creation of the term geographic information system – was Roger Tomlinson.

At the behest of the Canadian government, Tomlinson developed what would become the cornerstone of the country’s national land-use management program: the Canada Geographic Information System.

With computer technology now on the table as a potential GIS tool, Tomlinson pioneered the integration of that technology with land use mapping, creating a manageable inventory of natural resources right across the length and breadth of Canada. The system that Tomlinson designed had the ability to manage, model and analyse large quantities of data, allowing users to collect national geographic data for land-use management purposes.

The Canada Geographic Information System was the first computerised GIS in the world.

And it was just the beginning.

A rapidly growing industry

From Tomlinson’s work in the 1960s, to the commercial availability of computer-based GIS tools in the 1980s through to the mainstream advent of the internet in 1990s, GIS capabilities have increased by leaps and bounds.

Today’s GIS and spatial specialists have a greater scope than ever before to use these tools to aid organisations, governments and communities, and to tackle world problems such as poverty, pollution, over-population and loss of natural habitats.

If you are interested in finding out how you could learn to wield tools like GIS to help shape the world, read up on geospatial science here or click on the button below to find out about your educational opportunities. After all, it’s amazing what you could achieve with a little geospatial know-how.

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