An Overview: The Future of GIS

By Roger F. Tomlinson, President, Tomlinson Associates Ltd., Consulting Geographers
Looking at GIS in the new millennium one starts with the firm expectation that the adoption of GIS societywide and worldwide is inevitable and that GIS users will be advantaged in their work while nonusers will be relatively disadvantaged. It is also to be assumed that the technology will advance in concert with the increases in capability and lowered costs of computer hardware, operating systems, and communication bandwidth. With these assumptions made, the factors that will have the most impact on GIS development in the next millennium can be broadly grouped into the three categories of functionality, communications, and management. Roger Tomlinson
Photo by Couvrette, Ottawa, Canada


GISs are spatial analysis engines. This is what differentiates them from all other data handling capabilities. The functionality they need to offer must be based on the demand for analysis. Geographical analysis requires a spectrum of capabilities ranging from simple to complex.

The current set of functionality provided by commercial GIS software products covers the middle of this spectrum. The most desirable future developments in this middle section will be the focused provision of functionality tailored for specific types of users.

The ends of the functionality spectrum are where new GIS development will make the most societal impact. At the complex end there is model- and simulation-based research and development, particularly for visualization for complex systems, virtual as well as physical. GIS functionality needs to have the ability of modeling processes that will allow the behavior of complex spatial systems to be examined, leading to the ability to predict outcomes and, above all, to understand them. It is debatable whether this functionality should be developed by the GIS industry, but it represents the strongest GIS development resource in the world and may be the only capable agency.

At the other end of the functionality spectrum is simplicity of operation. The huge success of ArcView GIS illustrates but only scratches the surface of this demand. It can be argued that any GIS package is only partly or minimally used and that simpler interfaces must be developed that will allow access to the functionality. The societywide adoption of GIS will occur at this end of the functionality spectrum. Programs such as the ModelBuilder tools in the ArcView Spatial Analyst extension to ArcView GIS are vital at both ends of the spectrum and are a huge step forward. The additional step necessary is to incorporate spatial problem solving training in the software so that users go to the GIS to find out how to solve their geographical problems and not only to use a GIS in the mechanics of their work.


Perhaps the major development in the new millennium will be the increased ability to communicate quickly all forms of data. Bandwidth is increasing by at least 300 percent per year at the moment, and that rate can be expected to accelerate to the point where physical access to all data is essentially local. This will vastly increase the data sources available for analysis and hence enrich the ability to produce information of benefit to users and to society. This has huge potential ramifications to the way that society operates, for citizens to become involved in their community decision making and for organizations to cooperate in order to solve multifaceted problems. Physical access should not, however, be confused with administrative access. It can be anticipated that constraints to access will increase, regulatory data "standards" may help or inhibit data use, disciplinary accreditation procedures may limit data access to those who are "accredited," and costs of data by shortsighted government departments may reduce data use. There are very real issues of data security, data quality, data integrity, archival policy, privacy, and even ethics that increased physical access will bring to the fore. As with other aspects of GIS, the problems to be overcome are those of management rather than technology.

GIS Management

Less than half of GIS installations are yet well managed in the sense that the agency concerned is obtaining the benefit that is possible from its current hardware and software investment. The fact that they are rightly pleased with their current operations is a tribute to the benefit that even limited use of a GIS can bring.

It is increasingly recognized that successful GIS operations are those that have deliberately and consciously integrated GIS use into the strategic planning of the organization. The geographic information officer (GIO) is an important member of the management of the organization and must be responsible for producing information that impacts both the decision making and the day-to-day operations of the organization. The changes in work flow resulting from this approach have been responsible for the significant reductions in cost, increases in efficiency, and major benefits to successful organizations.

The new millennium will see greatly improved GIS management tools providing the ability to analyze organizational work flow, to recognize and define the new information products needed in an organization, to model the GIS data flow and analysis required, and to implement systems that are fully integrated with the strategic objectives of the organization. Clearly the ModelBuilder tools in the ArcView Spatial Analyst 2 extension to ArcView GIS have the potential to make a major contribution in this area. This emphasis on GIS management skills will be most evident in the first decade of the millennium as the technology becomes increasingly supportive and easy to use.

An essential foundation of GIS usage is the availability of trained people. Perhaps the entire rate of technology take-up in the first part of the millennium will depend on training. The need is for persons who are geographically literate and able to learn how to use the technology. Esri's links with the National Geographic Society and educational institutions worldwide are a significant step forward. The training focus must be on the ability to solve geographical problems. The context or discipline is unimportant--the technology transcends such boundaries and its value lies in its ability to make place important, to let us be aware of the space that we occupy, and to use that space carefully in the new millennium.

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