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GIS in Science

By Michael F. Goodchild, University of California, Santa Barbara

Michael GoodchildBy the late 1990s GIS had reached into virtually all areas of science that deal in some way with the earth's surface and near surface. The missionary efforts of the academic pioneers and of companies such as Esri had been so successful (and the benefits of GIS so compelling) that GIS was being used regularly as a tool in soil science, landscape architecture, criminology, archaeology, conservation biology, and many other disciplines and being taught to new generations of scientists through courses at all levels.

Like many technologies, GIS was first used in the sciences to do familiar things better, faster, or more cheaply. Many users adopted GIS because it offered a more attractive way to map their data for publication, and it took some time for the concept of spatial analysis to catch on. Only now are the social sciences beginning to recognize the power of spatial analysis and GIS to contribute to new scientific understanding--in other words, GIS is beginning to have fundamental effects on the way social science is done.

I believe this trend will accelerate in the next few years as GIS starts to have the same kinds of fundamental influence on the sciences that it has already had on the way some Businesses and agencies operate. GIS is a powerful way to integrate data, and it doesn't take much imagination to see that it can also help to integrate the sciences by breaking down the barriers that have grown between biology and geophysics or between economics and demography. Just as GIS can integrate the work of departments in an enterprise, it can also integrate the research of sciences in a university.

GIS is also a powerful way to make science more relevant by linking it to policy and decision making. Scientists are concerned with finding laws that are true everywhere, and in that effort the unique attributes of places are often of little interest. The rate of breast cancer incidence on Long Island may not be of much significance to a laboratory scientist who is looking for the root cause of breast cancer in the human genome. But it is very important to an agency whose mission is to reduce the risk to a Long Island resident by taking the results of the geneticist's work and combining them with data on the genetics of Long Island residents. GIS helps turn science into policy by taking specific information about places and combining it with algorithms, procedures, and models that represent general scientific understanding.

I predict that the beginning of the new millennium will see GIS beginning to have a systemic effect on the way science is conducted. Besides helping science to become more integrated and more relevant, it will encourage a more visual and intuitive approach in many sciences, the development of spatially explicit models and theories that recognize the importance of location, and a greater emphasis on how processes vary in the way they express themselves in different places.

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