GIS: Tool or Science

I have always considered GIS to be a science since it allowed me to undertake analysis of material in a way that resulted in a new understanding of spatial data. It maintained clear methodology and followed the scientific process. However, I clearly saw the programs used to reach such conclusions as a necessary tool of the trade. It was not until reading the 1997 piece “GIS: Tool or Science” by Wright et al. that I even knew there could be conflict in my conceptualization of GIS.

Wright et al. determined the act of “doing GIS’ to be divided into three categories: using GIS as a tool for research purposes, actively making GIS a more advanced tool, and doing GIS as a science, where further scientific advancement stemmed from initial GIS capabilities. While this article introduced an interesting topic of debate, my final understanding of the subject was not clarified much further by the GIS-L analysis presented.

The evolution of GIS since 1997 is obvious when reading this paper. I think the argument has advanced beyond many of the initial questions posed. For example, one person postulated that GIS would become more of a science when it divorced itself from geography – we could argue that GIS is now being used for other projects beyond basic spatial interpretation.

Another interesting note is there are many questions, and the paper as a whole, that I would argue remain very relevant to current discussion. Google Scholar shows that this piece has been cited 254 times and I personally wonder if GIS has evolved more into a science since the publishing of this piece. Linking back to our class discussion, if GIS is seen to only create maps then of course it will be recognized as a tool, but if further capabilities are imagined and implemented, a new science emerges.


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