Geographic Information Science Essay

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Organizations that have a planning, research, management, operational, and/or regulatory responsibility at the local, county, state, or federal level are increasingly turning toward Geographic Information Science (GISc) technology as an approach to data organization, visualization, integration, synthesis, and modeling. GISc is an integrated set of tools, techniques, concepts, and data sets associated with a host of spatial digital technologies including Geographic Information Systems, Remote Sensing, Data Visualization, Global Positioning Systems (GPS), Spatial Analysis, Quantitative Methods, and Spatial Modeling.

GISc is routinely used in government agencies, corporations, environmental health and ecological consulting firms, planning organizations, and academic institutions. Together, and separately, GISc has gained prominence across the social, natural, and spatial sciences. As a rapidly growing computer technology, GISc supports many kinds of decision making and analyses, including environmental policy, marketing, planning, demographic analysis, resource management, ecological analyses, health care delivery, nutrition and diet, environment and health, epidemiology, and information technology. These spatial digital technologies offer the opportunity to gain fresh insights into the pattern of variables and the behavior of systems through, for example, the spatial, temporal, spectral, and radiometric resolutions of remote sensing systems that are capable of mapping a host of social and ecological landscapes; the analytical and data integration capability of Geographic Information Systems (GIS); the locational specificity afforded through GPS; the importance of data visualizations to characterize patterns and to relate scales of representation to processes influencing areal distributions recorded over space and through time; and the predictive power of quantitative models and the descriptive capacity of statistical relationships and spatial analyses.

GISc is a fundamental, spatial, and non-spatial informational framework and perspective used to understand the nature of geographic data and provide theoretical foundations for geo-spatial techniques.

GISc evolved from the computerized, geographic information systems of the 1960s and 1970s. The increased demand and availability of spatial data and spatial data analysis, together with improved computer power and algorithms and software functionality have transformed a spatial analytical perspective characterized as a simple toolbox to an information system, and now to an integrated approach to science (i.e., GISc). Central to GISc is a suite of spatial digital technologies, best exemplified by GIS, Remote Sensing, and GPS.

GIS Technology

GIS and the other spatial technologies operate synergistically to create a model of reality that reflects the informational requirements of the project and the data visualization needs of the user. To achieve this duality of information and presentation, paradigms of mapmaking have shifted from the communication paradigm to the analytical paradigm. This shift is marked by a departure from the physical map as the final cartographic product-in which base information has been transformed and symbology applied for graphical display-to an approach in which geographic data are stored in a computerized database to provide multiple views of the information to multiple users, and where the physical map is only one form of visualizing spatial pattern, distribution, and association. The power of the approach is based on its interactivity, integration, customization, and alternative visualizations. GIS technology offers an analytical framework for data synthesis that combines a system capable of data capture, storage, management, retrieval, analysis, and display. From a functionality perspective, GIS techniques examine spatial and nonspatial relationships through analytical tools and techniques that, in general, include attribute operations, overlay operations, neighborhood operations, and connectivity operations; represent an array of landscape perspectives through the integration of geographically registered spatial coverages; efficiently display such information through a variety of data visualization approaches for spatial and temporal pattern analysis; examine the co-occurrence of spatial and nonspatial data through database manipulations; display singular thematic coverages or composited coverages through cartographic and/or statistical approaches; and model the location and behavior of phenomena through empirical and process models.

Remote Sensing Technology

Remote sensing is a surveillance and mapping science that is concerned with the observation and/or measurement of objects and features without having the measuring device in direct contact with the entity of interest. Remote sensing takes into account how energy and matter are interrelated at distinct spectral regions, whether collected on film or by digital sensors. Remote sensors are engineered to be sensitive to different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum (spectral resolution); map different sized objects and features (spatial resolution); and assess landscape characteristics using a quantitative range of response intensities (radiometric resolution), generally extending from 0 (low intensity of reflectance) to 255 (high intensity of reflectance). Remote sensing systems also are capable of rendering views across time (temporal resolution) as a consequence of their historical perspective of operation and their orbital specifications that periodically returns the satellite over the same geographic location for change imaging. Optical sensors are most commonly applied to landscape mapping. Optical sensors typically operate in the visible, near-infrared, and middle-infrared spectral regions of the electromagnetic spectrum, because of their capacity to discern important biophysical characteristics of the landscape including special properties of vegetation. In film products, information collected about the landscape is generally amalgamated into a single image by compositing the film layers, but in digital data sets, separate images or channels are retained for each spectral region so that the user can combine information about the landscape as appropriate.

GPS Technology

Finally, GPS involves the use of a constellation of 24 satellites that broadcast precisely timed signals to fixed and roving receivers to triangulate and transmit geographic coordinates for the characterization of positions recorded in the x-, y-, and z-dimensions. A host of applications rely upon GPS technology including airplane, car, and boat navigation; ecological and engineering activities conducted in local and remote environments; and surveying and mapping for business and industry. Also important for linking people and the environment, Earth coordinates are collected at household dwelling units as part of a socioeconomic and demographic survey so that locational information are explicitly linked to household variables, land parcels associated with individuals and households are spatially referenced, and sources and destinations of migrants can be geographically described and linked to characteristics of people, places, and environment. In short, GPS technology effectively defines the “where” of a variety of studies and analyses that are conducted at local, regional, national, and international settings.


  1. A. Quattrochi, S.J. Walsh, J.R. Jensen, and M.K. Ridd, “Remote Sensing: Prospects, Challenges, and Emergent Opportunities,” in: G.L. Gaile and C.J. Willmott, eds., Geography in America at the Dawn of the 21st Century (Oxford University Press, 2004);
  2. J. Walsh, T.P. Evans, and B.L. Turner, “Population-Environment Interactions with an Emphasis on LULC Dynamics and the Role of Technology,” in: S.D Brunn, S.L. Cutter, and J.W. Harrington, Jr., eds., Geography and Technology (Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004).

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