Today is GIS Day 2014

What is GIS?

No, that doesn’t stand for gastro-intestinal system nor the General Mills stock exchange label. For me, it stands for Geographic Information System. The standard definition of what a GIS is goes something like this:

A computer system designed to capture, integrate, edit, share, store, manipulate, analyze, display, manage, and formally present all types of spatial data.*

* From Wikipedia (more or less).

What is its history?

Map by John Snow showing clusters of cholera outbreaks in London, 1854. Image via Wikipedia.

Technically, one can say it’s been around since cartographers started scribbling lines on hide, but formally it all got started in the 1960s with the rise of computers, which allowed for easier data dissemination and manipulation.

There’s a long history of government, particularly defense departments, playing key roles in GIS software development.

But today, the commercialization of GIS is evident with the proliferation of companies like ESRI, and, well, ESRI. However, there is a whole host of open source solutions like QGIS.

How has it changed the world?

If you’ve used a BING, Yahoo!, or Google Map, you’ve used a GIS. Or rather, the fruit of a GIS (and GPS). GIS has made spatial information available to the public in way that normal paper maps just never did (or could). Instead of a static map that shows where things are (or were), we can ask the map where the items we are interested are right now and where they might be.

How I got into GIS

By accident. I worked for a small natural resource department with California State Parks and someone had to do it. My ability to learn quickly and natural affinity to maps made me an easy choice to head up the effort in our office to develop our GIS database.

Since then, I’ve worked on many projects in a variety of fields and, honestly, I can say I haven’t gotten bored. The application of GIS is infinite. Everything has a spatial component to it. A crime happens in our neighborhoods. Disease spreads from one nation to another. And plants propagate across the landscape. Each of these things can be mapped, tallied, and analysed to help us better understand our world.