GIS: Tool or Science?

Wright (1997) summarizes the debate over GIS as a tool or a science, saying that rather than there existing two sides of a debate, there are three positions GIS can take along a continuum. I found the idea of a continuum between tool, toolmaking and science to be an interesting visual. A continuum implies that there exist an infinite number of spaces between those points where an individual can find their relationship with GIS.

Wright discusses students learning GIS and the implications for these students of labeling GIS as a tool or a science. I am one of those students; however, as it’s been almost two decades since the article was published, it’s necessary to point out how far GIS has come since then. In my classes, it seems that learning GIS is a progression along the spectrum. In the introductory classes, we learn about GIS the tool, how to use the software, and how it is used in business, environment or urban planning. Next, we incorporate our own interests into GIS and find where our tool is lacking and start looking for ways to fill those gaps with toolmaking. Finally, in the most advanced classes, we can critique GIS itself and start asking the important questions of GIS such as, how do we incorporate space and time in a GIS visual? Who does GIS empower?

At the end of the article, this sentence in particular resonated with me: “GIS may represent a new kind of science, one that emphasizes visual expression, collaboration, exploration, and intuition, and the uniqueness of place” (Wright 358). This is certainly what I’ve seen of GIS and what I see in its future: a collaborative science based in the intuition of geography which explores technology.


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