GIS(cience)’s place in society

Wright et. al have an interesting methodology for analysing the debate on the status of GIS(cience). Unforunately, graphing GIS-L posting on the “GIS as a Science” topic is probably not quite as helpful to the analysis as a  literature study, questionnaire, or live conference. We should remember when reading this paper that the frequency chart does little to show the state of debate, especially with such low frequencies (rarely more than 1-2 postings per day). However, the paper is still able to highlight and explain the arguments for all sides.

One area neither paper looks into in great detail is the state of the GIS industry and related industries. This is important as the academic GIS scene is only secondary to the economic output GIS produces. Looking at the state of industry today though, it is clear that GIS, whether you see it as just the software and hardware tools, or as a way of thinking, is here to stay. Demand for the technology will not disappear, nor become obsolete. Therefore, one can be pretty certain that we will be doing GIS in the future, no matter what form it takes. This can bring some to question whether the debate on the status of GIS is necessary at all (the short answer is ‘no’). It may eventually be that GIS becomes so ubiquitous that it becomes ‘too integrated’ into our lives, and certain knowledge of software and/or techniques becomes common knowledge within other fields. However, GIScientists should still ask themselves – “what would industry be like if there was no one to care about GIScience problems – problems of visualisation, resolution, data management and so on”. How would GIS systems have turned out if they had solely been developed by computer scientists or cartographers? Regardless of whether or not GIS is a science or tool, there will always be people around to think about GIScience problems, and that is what should matter, not the survival of research labs or government grants (in the current market, I am optimistic that money will not be too much of a constraint). GIS is in one of those positions where it can be influenced by any number of fields, since its applications are so wide-ranging. This makes it very flexible and greatly increases the chances of growth and advancement of techniques. Trying to narrow GIS into a definition of a science may not be the best approach if one wants to promote development, especially since GIS is so dependent upon the its tools and toolmaking characteristics. Currently, GIS is generally taught as more of a tool in university. The technique-based approach is certainly useful in created a workforce skilled in GIS analysis. In the computer industry, the two main degrees one can receive are an IT degree or a Comp. Sci degree, both of which are very different from one another. I think it is accurate to approximate the former to the ‘tools’ approach, and the latter as the more ‘science-y’. GIS right now tends to be viewed as akin to IT management – the challenge right now is to either turn it into Computer Science, or somehow split the two.

GIS is a field very much based upon computing technology, and as we well know, the advances in computing are often so fast and surprising, that it is difficult to predict even 5 years into the future. If the question of GIS’s status is not resolved today, it may very well be in 5-10 yrs depending on what new advances come up.

On a side note, I don’t have any definite areas of interest in Geography, but may be interested in looking at human-computer interfaces for the project.


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