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Government: GIS provides a road map

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Few information management tools are as pervasive in today’s world as geographical information system (GIS) technology. Defined as a framework for gathering, managing and analyzing geographical data, GIS is used at every level of government, in nearly every industry and in every region of the world. It is extensively used in the management of natural resources, mitigation of environmental issues, disaster response and demographic studies. The advent of smart communities has also fostered the need for more GIS tools and services.

Although GIS has been in use for more than a half century, for much of that time it was a specialized discipline, and its potential in knowledge management was not widely recognized. Its dramatic growth and movement into the mainstream was a result of several forces, including greater computing power, the advent of big data, mobile devices and sensors and an increasing awareness of how much GIS has to offer. The development of GIS tools that are easier to use has also helped bring the technology into the mainstream.

Early history of GIS

One of the earliest documented uses of spatial analysis solved a persistent medical mystery. It dates back to a cholera outbreak in London in 1854, when physician John Snow began mapping outbreaks of the disease. His map included the location of cholera cases, property boundaries and water lines. He discovered that the outbreaks were centered around a particular water pump. His research proved that contrary to popular belief, cholera was transmitted not through the air but through contaminated water.

An earlier investigation was done in France in the 1830s by cartographer Charles Picquet, who created a color gradient map of districts in Paris that were experiencing cholera attacks. His map showed the intensity of the disease in various districts but apparently did not produce an explanation. Those studies, however, helped launch both geospatial analysis and epidemiology. GIS is still being used to track cholera in developing countries.

Another pivotal moment for GIS came in the 1960s when the Canadian government began to collect detailed information for the Canada Land Inventory (CLI). The Canada Geographic Information System (CGIS) was developed to store and analyze data from the inventory. Initiated and developed by Roger Tomlinson, CGIS was the first computerized GIS. As a cartographer for an aerial survey company, Tomlinson had encountered by chance the government official appointed to head the CLI operation and later came to work for that organization.

The Harvard Laboratory for Computer Graphics and Spatial Analysis also played a key role through its development of computerized map-making software. No longer in operation, the lab also conducted research on spatial analysis and visualization. An interdisciplinary team at the laboratory helped develop many of the key concepts and technologies used in GIS. Other academic research on geographic information science was conducted through the National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis (NCGIA).

Although numerous government agencies at the state and national level began adopting GIS technology, another two decades would go by before a commercial GIS product was developed. The Environmental Systems Research Institute (Esri), co-founded by Jack and Laura Dangermond, as a land use consulting firm, developed a product for one of its clients in the 1970s. The product evolved into ARC/INFO, a tool introduced in 1981 for geospatial query and analysis. ArcView GIS, a commercial off-the-shelf solution, was introduced in 1992 and Arc­GIS Desktop, which provided a simpler user interface for standard GIS operations, was released in 1999. The latter product was the predecessor of Esri’s current platform, ArcGIS.

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