Geographic Information Systems –a Tool for Geographers or a Science in Its Own Right?

Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010 by Terje Sørgjerd

Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010 by Terje Sørgjerd

by Briony Turner

There’s an interesting paper by Mordechai Haklay in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers which starts off by describing an ‘Iron Sheep’ exercise at the recent Association of American Geographers conference – one could be forgiven for thinking it’s a trial for inclusion in the next Bond film.

The paper itself provides an interesting history of geographical information science. The paper doesn’t touch on the difference between geographical information “science” and “systems” so for other geographers perhaps slightly unsure like myself, the science part is the theory behind the use and application of the technology/software that comprises geographic information systems.  Perhaps this confusion is itself a product of the ‘cleavage in GIS between two traditions, that of spatial information on the one hand and that of spatial analysis on the other’ (Goodchild, 1992).  Mordechai’s paper explores whether geographical information science is a sub discipline, or not, of Geography.

Back in the 1854 John Snow, one of the forefathers of modern day GIS as well as epidemiology, mapped out the Soho cholera outbreak using points to represent individual cases and revealed a cluster around a public water pump on Broad Street.  This led to identification of the contaminated water pump as the source of the disease.  For teachers, this legendary Cholera map in various GIS formats and suggested lesson content is freely available via the James Madison University National Centre for Rural Science and Mathematics Education.

In a more modern day context, Peter Webley, Assistant Research Professor at the Geographical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, who back in my undergraduate days was a Postdoctoral Research Associate in our Geography Department, uses GIS as a means to bring together fieldwork and remote sensing data for operational use. He’s now part of the IAF-AVO remote sensing group and is responsible for the volcanic ash cloud model forecasts for volcanoes around the world.   You might well ask, why focus on this individual?  It is creative individuals like him, that put to use GIS software to translate geographic data, models and forecasts into something tangible, understandable and operational for the rest of society.   For instance he developed a system to analyse thermal hotspot volcanic monitoring in Central America to help provide the information necessary for disaster warnings (UAF, 2012).  In addition to the day job, he’s part of a team that have developed “MapTEACH” which is a fantastic educational tool to help teachers and their students in Alaska get to grips with GIS whilst simultaneously preserving their community heritage, their history told through stories, with mapping.

Hopefully this post will have inspired some of you to seek out more information on GIS and for the teachers amongst you, perhaps to spend some lesson time on it.  The Royal Geographical Society has a GIScience Research Group, so do check out its pages if you’d like to find out more.  There’s a “Virtual Issue” of Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers with papers over the past five decades covering the use of computers in geographical and cartographical research, a substantial amount of which, including Mordechai Haklay’s paper, are free to download so do also check them out.

For those of you in London, interested in debating this/want to meet people who use GIS in their jobs/research, the London Trainee and Student GIS Community are meeting for drinks at the aptly named John Snow pub, Sunday 20th January at 2pm, 39 Broadwich Sreet, London W1F9QL, the more the merrier!

GJ book reviewMichael F Goodchild, 1992, Geographical information science, International Journal of Geographical Information Systems, 6 31–45

books_iconMordechai Haklay, 2012, Geographic information science: tribe, badge and sub-disciplineTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers 37  477-481

GJ book review

Augustine eruption leads to updated model, University of Alasaka Fairbanks

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