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Spring 2009
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Changing the Face of Geography: GIS and the IGU

By Roger F. Tomlinson

Geographers—including those of the International Geographical Union (IGU)—have as their task the description and explanation of the living space of humans and the resulting spatial structure of society. The development of formal views of these concerns forms the basis for the modern science of geography. The extent and complexity of the world we live in make this task hard. The volumes of data that result from even cursory global investigation are a serious impediment to our understanding. Fifty years ago, it was not possible to handle any large set of the hard-copy maps and data that were being gathered, much less analyze them in any efficient way. The resulting inability—indeed the failure—to ask questions, let alone consider in depth the role of various interacting influences shaping the individual and societal factors, left us with a deep and generally unrecognized ignorance of space and time behavior.

The advent of computers as information processing tools and the development of GIS have measurably assisted geographers in their work. These new tools are being added to the discipline. Just as the advent of the telescope by Galileo increased the knowledge of the heavens and the concepts of space and the advent of the microscope revolutionized biology with its ability to add resolution and depth to inquiry, so the advent of the tools of GIS has impacted the discipline of geography. The quality of questions asked is rising, and the scope and use of spatial analysis are becoming more sophisticated. We are digging deeper into the spatial variables in considering factors that otherwise would not be explored. The trade-off between effort and inquiry is shifting in favor of inquiry. Workers are able to exchange their reasoning (decision models) very easily. This is contributing to the awareness of geography and the growing number of people becoming involved in the field. There is an increasing exchange of ideas and methods. As a result, the study of geography is changing significantly and beneficially and, in particular, expanding outside academic confines. Geography as a discipline is no longer encompassed by academic geography. It is not now principally reductionist and curiosity driven, with a goal to produce general laws (a long-established scientific method with great virtue). There is an urgent demand for the use of geographic science in government, relative to society, and to address the pressing issues facing the world. Geographers have major contributions to make to these issues.

  click to enlarge
The process of prepositioning ambulances for better service is one way in which GIS is used to examine spatial situations.

There is, for example, broad agreement in the scientific community that the earth's climate is changing and that it is partly human induced. Very little is known, however, about the societal impacts of climate change, and there are very important geographic questions that need to be answered about changes in biogeochemical cycles, ecosystems, water resources, and resource utilization; continued atmospheric pollution; and the overall economic, political, and social implications. Geographers can contribute to the body of knowledge about climate change by synthesizing, analyzing, and modeling possible impacts.

Similarly, with respect to human health and well-being, understanding of a population's health, the distribution of disease in an area, and the environment's effect on health and disease is central to human existence and a quintessentially geographic problem. There are also significant issues about the accessibility of health care and spatial distribution of health care providers.

Globalization is about interaction and integration among people, companies, and governments of different nations, a process driven by international trade and investment and aided by information technology. It has effects on the environment, culture, political systems, economic development and prosperity, and human physical well-being in societies around the world. Again, the analysis of these conditions has a strong spatial component.

Societal security is an essential goal of all governments and one that has become increasingly difficult to fulfill in recent years. In an area of asymmetric warfare, sociopolitical solutions have become ever more complex, and their impacts affect different communities and socioeconomic groups in different ways.

Sustainability entails meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, and it still remains a problem, especially in light of accelerated environmental change and the current food crisis. Geographers have a great deal to contribute to understanding and solving this complex, multidimensional, essentially spatial problem.

Underpinning social diversity means understanding and generalizing the processes of spatial heterogeneity: defining characteristics of patterns and processes on the surface of the earth. Understanding these processes, which account for social diversity, difference, and inequality, is key to good governance.

The following are illustrations of some of the ways in which GIS is being used to examine spatial situations.

Climate—The Palmer Drought Severity Index is the basis for agricultural relief for farmers in major distress. Of particular interest is the analysis of drought on nuclear power plants. They require large volumes of water for cooling purposes, and sustained drought means that they have to be closed down, removing their supply of electricity in the states concerned.

Human Impact—The first human impact map of population density in two hemispheres is that of CO2 emissions in the atmosphere, using real-time Jet Propulsion Laboratory satellite sensor information.

Population Density—Population density is provided as an element in the calculations of human impact and the human footprint.

Human Footprint—The human footprint aims to measure the extent of human interference on the earth's surface, using updated data on human population density, land transformation, human access, electrical power infrastructure, and settlements. This latest version was produced in 2008. The work was produced by the Humanitarian Information Unit of the Office of the Geographer and Global Issues (director, Dr. Lee Schwartz) of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the U.S. Department of State.

Human Health—Human health examines the interaction of spatial variables, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture's work with animal influence on human health; the outbreaks of avian flu in China by location; the tracing of the acute respiratory syndrome outbreak in China and Hong Kong to identify its origins; the National Cancer Institute's analysis of environmental effects on cancer incidents; and the relationship between smoking and birth weight in part of Ontario, Canada.

Avian Flu—Avian flu and bird migration routes illustrate the correlation between known outbreaks of avian flu and bird migration corridors to assist in the process of identifying the source and the diffusion of the disease. The same GIS application allows users to identify quarantine stations, flu shot clinics, and local public health departments.

Ambulance Location—The process of prepositioning ambulances for better service is examined. Contours of actual demand (call density) and the existing position of ambulances to meet that demand are calculated to optimize response travel times, affecting the efficiency of ambulance organization and survival rate in the area.

Flu Vaccine Distribution—Access to influenza vaccine distributions is compared to population distribution with access buffer zones of a one-mile and a two-mile radius around points of distribution of vaccines. Similar analysis is being used in preparation for avian flu epidemics.

AIDS—The progress on the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief in sub-Saharan Africa is illustrated as a basis for policy change. Also included are results in Vietnam and Guyana. Further analysis and understanding of the AIDS epidemic in Africa, particularly Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, and Malawi, come from analyzing patient data by gender showing the percentage of HIV-positive individuals in four categories (25 percent, 510 percent, 1015 percent, and more than 15 percent of the population). Similarly, HIV prevalence among youth by first-order administrative divisions in the countries concerned is examined, again as a percentage of the general population and by gender. These studies underpin the effective delivery of AIDS relief in sub-Saharan Africa and the monitoring and analysis of program effectiveness.

illustration by Elizabeth Davies
Illustration by Elizabeth Davies, Esri

The analysis of life and death in Africa is one with broad scope. It includes infant mortality rates, access to drinking water, overall AIDS infections, gross national income, and life expectancy by country. Bringing these variables together over a continent allows workers to better understand the measures necessary to improve the national condition.

Food Riots 20072008—The human condition of the world, particularly the food riots of 2007 and 2008, is tracked and illustrated. This is the first instance of a worldwide dimension.

Afghanistan Opium Cultivation—With Afghanistan supplying 80 percent of the world's heroin, this is a global issue. This map compares population density in Afghanistan with areas of poppy cultivation. The Taliban is operating extensively in the southern area of the country and has recently started operations in the northeast.

Habitat Destruction—Brazil graphically illustrates the extent of harvesting, which is systematically removing rain forest habitat.

Where to Plant a Billion Trees—The Green Belt Movement, spearheaded by Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai, is a political/environmental, and very successful, movement with the object of planting a billion trees in Africa. Peter Ndunda is the GIS coordinator for the project, actively working in East and West Africa to overlay soil types, climate, animal habitat, population density, and tribal lands to determine the most effective sites for planting. Without the GIS, trees would be planted in unfavorable sites. Their survival would be dubious, and popular political support would wither away.

Plant Hardiness Zone Migration—The Nature Conservancy at the University of Washington has calculated plant hardiness zones for 1960, 2008, and 2099. The movement north of the boreal forest and the ameliorating of temperatures in the Arctic islands are particularly noticeable. Implications for habitat can be measured and better appreciated.

Arctic Sea Ice—The Arctic sea ice conditions are put into perspective. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) data shows that Arctic perennial sea ice, which normally survives the summer melt season and remains year-round, shrank abruptly by 14 percent between 2004 and 2005. The loss of perennial ice in the east Arctic Ocean was even higher, nearing 50 percent during that time as some of the ice moved from the east Arctic to the west. The overall decrease in winter Arctic perennial sea ice totals 720,000 square kilometers (280,000 square miles)—an area the size of Texas. Perennial ice can be 3 or more meters (10 or more feet) thick. It was replaced by new, seasonal ice only about 0.3 to 2 meters (1 to 7 feet) thick that is more vulnerable to summer melt. The decrease in the perennial ice raises the possibility that Arctic sea ice will retreat to another record low extent this year. This follows a series of very low ice-cover years observed over the past four summers from active and passive microwave satellite data.

Travel History—By tracking the flights of one company over the course of a year and understanding environmental impact routes, the use of increasingly high-cost fuel and the distribution of future corporate locations/regional offices become understood.

Hydro Watershed—The hydro watershed of the Neuse River in North Carolina is a sophisticated exercise in flood probability and control based on rainfall and evaporation over the course of a year.

Humanitarian Aid—For the purposes of humanitarian aid, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) determines the location of individuals affected by cyclone activity in Bangladesh. This analysis was used as a basis for extensive aid being provided in the right locations.

Another example of humanitarian aid produced by the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance in USAID concerns the Greek wildfires of 2007. The principal map used by the project is the result of daily identification of five boundaries. In particular, the analysis concentrated on the degree of soil burn severity in the Kladios Basin, which allowed the focus of aid to be directed to those communities most affected by long-term damage and in the most desperate need of assistance.

Humanitarian aid provided by the U.S. Department of State in the Horn of Africa is concerned with the potential interaction of drought, locusts, flooding, and earthquakes, providing measures of the probability by hazard type to provide policy guidance for assistance in this area.

Humanitarian aid is the frequently minimized side of the U.S. Department of Defense, which uses mobile GIS in identifying needs and building the facilities for water supply in Afghanistan.

The Press Response—The press takes note of geography in action. There has been a series of newspaper headlines concerning GIS utilization in city operations, police department activities, real estate transactions, riverine studies, and so on.

Commercial Applications—Commercial store locations show the increasing use of geography in the business community, analyzing how specific retail outlets are located with respect to the driving distance (in miles) from their nearest competitors and the subsequent analysis of areas with access to more than one store to ensure that new store locations do not compete in the trade area of existing stores.

Summarizing the Spatial Situations

GIS combines the ability to manage stores of geographic data and perform spatial analysis and modeling to visualize output and disseminate results and methods.

It is not surprising that GIS and geographic analysis are being widely used. But the diffusion of geographic analysis methodology throughout the real world is quite remarkable. Based on licensing records, there are few countries or government departments in the world that are not using GIS. At least 5 million people in more than 300,000 institutions in more than 150 countries are using geographic methods in their work daily. And the largest campuses investigating geographic analysis are not in academia but in the private sector (e.g., Esri has more than 2,700 U.S. employees, with 100 Ph.D. and 1,500 master's recipients, and adds numerous new graduates each year).

  click to enlarge
Avian flu and bird migration routes illustrate the correlation between known outbreaks of avian flu and bird migration corridors to assist in the process of identifying the source and the diffusion of the disease.

Using the assumption that every $1 million of investment in data and GIS requires at least one trained person for the investment to be used effectively, there is a shortfall of at least 3,000 trained people per year in North America alone, compared to the output from all universities and technical colleges in North America. Students are realizing that geography offers career opportunities and interesting jobs throughout the working world.

Interest in the discipline is growing everywhere. Academic geography may be splintering into quasi-named departments and subspecialties, but students who are trained in geographic analysis and can use the modern tools of GIS are in high demand. The growth of this interest is exemplified in the growth of the Association of American Geographers, which has increased significantly in size in the past decade and whose yearly conferences are attended by more people than ever (see table below). Similarly indicative is the reintroduction of geography at Harvard after an absence of 60 years in the new Center for Geographical Analysis. At the center's inauguration, the president of Harvard said, "Geographic information systems will let us change the nature of questions that are asked in a wide diversity of sciences and humanities."

Indeed, a wide variety of problems has already been illustrated and is being addressed, but many broad-based issues still demand the attention of geographers.

tableThere is a geography of security and terrorism that is multifaceted and comparatively little researched and understood, in spite of the fact that it could contribute enormously to this pressing problem. There is great scope in this area for the development of critical theories to examine alternative geographies.

The extensive development of quantitative geography in the 1960s and 1970s addressing the problems of analyzing and modeling space needs to be integrated with the GIS capabilities of today and brought together to develop wider and more generally applicable models of geographic space and time, focusing on interactions and dynamics.

We still have no adequate models for major cities, much less for the world itself. I am convinced that we—or at the very least, our grandchildren—will have them, but there are many research questions that remain to be investigated on the way to creating Al Gore's "digital earth." There are questions that touch on many aspects of geography, including representation, efficiency of information management, appropriate scientific visualization of issues, applications, and policy implications. I have no doubt that GIS will be at the core of this progress and that the future will be rich and productive.

International Geographical Union (IGU)

The International Geographical Union's interest in GIS originated in the Commission on Remote Sensing under the chairmanship of Dieter Steiner (19641968). The transition from photointerpretation to the handling of satellite imagery in digital form heralded the renaming of the commission in 1968 as the Commission on Geographical Data Sensing and Processing. This commission stayed in existence for 12 years under my chairmanship in the critical early stages of GIS. It held the first international GIS conferences in the world, published the first texts, established international cooperation between workers in the field, established academic and industry research teams, undertook inventory and description of all GIS software under development, and carried out appraisal of in-house systems for government agencies.

To put this into perspective, in the 1950s and 1960s, the links between computers and maps were tenuous at best. Workers were separated internationally and intellectually. Communication varied from poor to nonexistent. Academics found that, in general, their departments did not actively support their efforts; academic journals were not greatly interested, and their publishing delays did not serve the needs of the rapidly developing field. The field was being moved forward by people in institutions with a need for the capabilities, mainly in government departments, and in the private sector by those who wished to provide goods and services to government.

These needs were perceived to be those of agencies that produced paper maps and needed to automate the cartographic process and agencies that needed to read and geographically analyze maps (and related statistical data) and required geographic information systems to provide information for decision-making purposes. These requirements led to the initially separate development of automatic cartography systems and geographic information systems.

Clearly, there was a need for increased communication in the field and for providing support for academic colleagues, as well as establishing an international base for research and publication and a forum for discussion and networking. The IGU did that.

The first international conference on GIS was held in Ottawa, Canada, in 1970. Under the auspices of the IGU and with the assistance of UNESCO (particularly the support and guidance of Dr. Konstantin Lange) and the government of Canada, an invitation was sent to everyone known to be active in the field. Forty people were contacted and attended the conference, and by the end of the week, the first book on geographic information systems was created. It was entitled Environment Information Systems to take advantage of government's renewed interest in environmental concerns at that time. The primary objectives were to establish communication between workers in the field and to publish. Participants at the first meeting undertook to write a further text on the state of development of the field entitled Geographical Data Handling. This was published with the assistance of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in 1972. It was a two-volume, 1,300-page text that reviewed all known developments of geographic data sensing, spatial data processing, spatial data manipulation and analysis, spatial data display, current systems, and the economics of geographic data handling. These were the first key texts in the field and were affectionately known as the "yellow and green telephone directories." One thousand copies were printed. They were available free of charge at the Second IGU Conference held in Ottawa that year. Three hundred people attended. Official delegations from 8 countries and workers from 15 countries were present. For the next few years, with the aid of the government of Canada, the IGU published a yearly directory of the names and contact information of the original participants and a description of their work. This list was subsequently added to voluntarily by additional workers and was sent to everybody listed. The communication process had begun.

In 1975, the commission also formed a critique group and carried out case studies on five geographic information systems in North America—their successes and failures—with the support of UNESCO, which published the work as a text in its Natural Resource Research Series in 1975. The IGU was also invited to review the work of the USGS. This was a two-year study and produced a seminal report in 1976 that alerted the major agency that it was committed to the digital age but was woefully unprepared to undertake commitments that it had already made. Also, for the first time, the IGU provided significant input to the work of the Committee on Data for Science and Technology of the International Council of Scientific Unions.

In the late 1970s, the IGU undertook an inventory of all computer software for spatial data handling, funded by the Resource and Land Inventory Program and the Geography Program of the U.S. Department of the Interior and directed by the renowned Dr. Duane Marble. This work represented the most comprehensive review of software for spatial data handling undertaken to that date, describing more than 600 systems and software programs worldwide. The resulting three-volume reference text was published by USGS in 1980 and made available at no cost to scientists worldwide. The commission also held interdisciplinary meetings in 1977 and 1978 to examine the methodological problems inherent in the future storage of large amounts of spatial data. These were held in Ottawa and Toronto, Canada, and Buffalo, New York. The IGU also contributed to the NASA meeting on Landsat data and geographic information systems in 1977. Under the leadership of Dieter Steiner, it provided a three-week workshop in Nigeria on remote-sensing methods for regional and national planning in July 1978, funded by the Canadian International Development Agency and UNESCO. The working materials for this workshop included a three-volume text on the recent applications of remote-sensing technology for use by the commission.

From 1980 to 1988, the work of the Commission on Geographical Data Sensing and Processing was led by Marble. The activity concentrated principally on specialist meetings addressing major scientific concerns in the development of GIS. In 1988, the commission was renamed the Commission on Geographic Information Systems under the chairmanship of professor Sachio Kubo from Japan.

In all, the IGU carried out supervision of $1.5 million in grants and contracts between 1968 and 1980. The communication foundation had been laid, academic geographers were increasingly receiving recognition for their work, regularly published journals were becoming available, and GIS conferences worldwide provided a necessary continuation of the work begun by the International Geographical Union. In short, the IGU was the organization that nourished the growth of GIS and let it be a coherent part of geography for the benefit of the discipline as a whole.


Generous contributions to this paper were made by Dr. David Maguire and Dr. Duane Marble. The author also wishes to thank John Calkins and Jay Loteria for graphic assistance.

About the Author

Dr. Roger F. Tomlinson, CM, is president of Tomlinson Associates Ltd. Consulting Geographers, 17 Kippewa Drive, Ottawa, Ontario K1S 3G3 Canada. He was chairman of the International Geographical Union GIS Commission for 12 years, and he is known as the "father of GIS" as a result of his work in using computers to model land inventories for the Canadian government in the early 1960s. He is the author of many works, including Thinking About GIS, Third Edition, 2007, Esri Press, Redlands, California.

More Information

For more information, contact Roger Tomlinson (e-mail:

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