GIS: Tool or Science?

The debate surrounding the use of GIS as either a tool or a science did not occur to me while I was taking introductory courses in the field. I simply understood it as being a subset of geography, distinct in its own right as it compelled the visualization of geographic data for the maps. While reading through this article I was struck by the complexity and rigour this debate engendered. One thing that was evident to me was its place in history. The article was published in 1997 and used data extracted from early messaging boards shared between people who did GIS in their respective universities. I am unsure of how developed GIS was at the time, but I imagine that it was much more rudimentary than the way I was introduced to it. I mention this as I recall Wright et al’s positioning of GIS as a science, injecting that in order to be considered a science it would need to be in a position in which it drives technology. We are in a position today in which the demand for GIS knowledge is in high demand due to the sheer immensity of GIS data being produced and consumed on a daily basis. As it is advertised as a skill or a tool, as I would imagine many of those trained in it consider it, it would lack the same sort of scientific rigour that other disciplines will have. While scientists and psychologists are subject to a code of conduct with their disciplines, I imagine that there are many people using GIS who do not acknowledge the power that the technology may have on the wellbeing of people. As we look back embarrassingly on the racist and colonialist legacies of other academic disciplines, perhaps one day we will look back on the mismanagement of GIS data in a similar light. Perhaps by establishing GIS as a science, an broader understanding of its ethical implications may unfold.


Comments are closed.