A geographic information system, or GIS, is a computer system which surveyors and other professionals use to capture, store, assess and present data related to positions on Earth’s surface. Multiple types of data can be displayed by GIS, enabling highly detailed analysis. GIS is used to compare various aspects of locations to gather information about how they relate to each other. A huge variety of data can be compared with GIS, from populations, income and levels of education to lakes, vegetation and soil-types.
Early Days of GIS
One of the original applications of spatial analysis in epidemiology was made in 1832, when the French geographer Charles Picquet represented the 48 districts of Paris with grades of colour which corresponded to the number of cholera deaths per 1,000 inhabitants. In 1854, John Snow achieved one of the first uses of geographic methodology in epidemiology. He made points on a map of where cholera victims lived in London, and identified the cause of an outbreak by connecting areas where there were high numbers of deaths with a neighbouring water source.
During the early 20th century, photozincography was developed, enabling surveyors to divide maps into layers which represented different terrains. This was particularly useful for printing contours, and helped lay the foundations for contemporary GIS.
Canada Leads the Way in GIS Technology
In 1960, the world’s first operational GIS was developed in Ottawa, Canada, by Roger Tomlinson, for the federal Department of Forestry and Rural Development. The Canada Geographic Information System (CGIS) was designed to store, analyse and manipulate data collected on rural Canada by mapping information on soils, agriculture, recreation, forestry and land use at a scale of 1:50,000.
CGIS enabled overlaying, highly accurate measurement and digitalising, and represented a significant improvement on computer mapping. It supported a national coordinate system, with coded lines and an embedded topology, and stored locational information in separate files. Tomlinson became known as the Father of GIS. In 1968, he became the first to use the term ‘geographic information system’ in his paper ‘A Geographic Information System for Regional Planning’.
From Research to Business
Two major public domain GIS systems, MOSS and GRASS GIS, were in development by the 1970s. By the early Eighties, several computing firms had incorporated CGIS features and emerged as commercial vendors of GIS.
The first desktop GIS product, Mapping Display and Analysis System, was released in 1986. In 1990, it was renamed MapInfo for Windows, on Microsoft Windows, starting the process of moving GIS into the business environment.
Users had started viewing GIS data on the Internet by the end of the 20th century. Several free, open-source GIS packages now run on various operating systems and can be customised for specific tasks. An increasing number of geospatial data and mapping applications are available online