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ArcWatch: Your e-Magazine for GIS News, Views, and Insights

May 2009

Looking into the Past and Future of GIS

A Conversation with Dr. Roger F. Tomlinson

  photo of Dr. Roger Tomlinson
Dr. Roger F. Tomlinson first coined the term "geographic information system."

Dr. Roger F. Tomlinson, author of Thinking About GIS: Geographic Information System Planning for Managers, is the principal of Tomlinson Associates Ltd., a firm of consulting geographers he established in 1963. He has advised an impressive list of clients, from the World Bank to the U.S. and Canadian Forest Services. He holds two bachelor's degrees; a master's degree from McGill University in Montreal, Canada; and a Ph.D. from University College, London, England. He has also conducted successful GIS planning seminars worldwide.

Tomlinson, who first coined the term "geographic information system," recently spoke to Esri writer Jim Baumann about his pioneering work using GIS and what he expects the future holds for the technology.

Baumann: You are commonly referred to as the "father of GIS." Can you tell me how GIS processes have developed historically?

Tomlinson: The concept of map overlays has been a standard geographic analysis technique for a long time. For example, immediately after World War II, the Royal Institute of Planning in the United Kingdom provided a handbook on map overlay techniques. One was called sieve mapping and was frequently used by land-use planners after the war to determine the suitability of an area for a project or activity. You would start with a basemap of the study area and place gridded transparent sheets over the map. Each transparent sheet represented specified criteria. Squares on the grid were blacked out if it was decided that a specific area wasn't suitable for the activity. Other transparent sheets were used for other criteria and blacked out in the same manner. When the sheets were overlaid one on top of the other on the basemap, the regions visible were those most suitable for the specified project.

Baumann: What led you to refining the map overlay concepts?

Tomlinson: In 1959, I went to work for Spartan Air Services, a Canadian aerial survey company where I did photointerpretation. The Ottawa-based company sent me on a project in Kenya. As part of an international aid program, the Canadian government wanted to build a paper mill for the country. Our company did the aerial photography and forest inventory of Kenya to determine the best place to build the mill. As it turned out, the native trees weren't suitable for making paper pulp. So we started collecting information to determine the best places for plantations for wood pulp production. We used soil maps to see where the trees we wanted to plant would grow the best. We generated a slope map because you couldn't harvest trees easily where there are steep slopes. We needed to know where the indigenous tribes lived because some tribes were more migratory than others, and those that were settled would provide a more stable workforce. We also recorded the elephant migration routes because a herd of elephants can trample a young plantation, and we identified monkey habitats because monkeys make a meal out of young trees. It was also necessary to determine the rainfall in different areas. Too little rain led to drought, while too much rain promoted larger insect populations as well as Spanish moss, which are devastating to a tree plantation. Maps with transportation routes, rivers, and bridges were also necessary. Kenya had been a British colony, and the country had been fairly well mapped by British scientists, so some of the data we needed had already been collected.

We got back to the office and began analyzing all the maps we collected by assembling the different layers of mapping data in the way I've already described and measuring the various surface areas. This hand/eye analysis was laborious, and as it turned out, it was more expensive to do the analysis than originally flying the country and collecting the data. There were budgetary constraints, and my boss told me to find a way to cut the budget.

Baumann: How did you implement the map overlay concepts with a computer?

Tomlinson: My company had small IBM computers and cartographic plotting tables, and since I was surrounded with the best technology of the time, I started thinking about assigning values to the different map layers and feeding them into the computer to let the computer do the comparisons and plot the results. We oriented the plotter head to the map we were creating with its successive layers of data. It took about a week of evening work, and in the end, we produced what I think was the first map digitized from hard copy in Canada. I was pretty excited by this and started proposing the idea of my company developing this approach to automated mapping in partnership with the different computer companies in town. Unfortunately, the standard reply from the computer companies was always the same: Thank you, but we don't see a market for that kind of product.

This was pretty disappointing, but by chance I sat next to Lee Pratt on an airplane in 1962. He had just been appointed by the federal government to head the Canada Land Inventory. Canadian farmers were in a bad way financially. There were 600,000 farmers, and they needed help. Canada's arable and productive land measures about 1 million square miles. So the first question was, What do we actually know about this farmland? We also needed to know, Could the land be used for other things such as recreation or plantations? What does the census say about the income of these farmers? What about their level of education? Can we educate ourselves out of this problem? Where should we put schools? This was a big step for the government, because it hadn't really done this kind of in-depth land planning up until then. Lee indicated that he planned to put all this information on transparent sheets and overlay them for analysis. I told him that I could do it with a computer. So we did some estimates, and it was determined that to use the manual method would take 563 cartographic technicians three years to do the job and would cost about $8 million [Canadian]. In addition to the cost, a major problem was that the government only had 50 or 60 qualified technicians. So I put together technical and economic feasibility reports and determined that we could develop a system that would do the job in weeks rather than years and for less than $2 million. We developed the Canada Geographic Information System, the first computerized GIS in the world. And geographic information system, the term I coined for this process, has held up very well over the years.

Baumann: What major developments have occurred in the past 10 years that have defined the current direction of GIS?

Tomlinson: One major development is the lowering of the cost of computing. In my recent book [Thinking About GIS: Geographic Information System Planning for Managers, Third Edition—Esri Press, ISBN: 9781589481589, 2007, 254 pages, $29.95], I modeled a mythical town called the City of Rome, which has a GIS implemented, and one of our exercises is to calculate GIS costs. We determine the costs based on current staff and hardware prices. We always use the same hardware configuration at the beginning so that we can compare development costs during each successive three-year project cycle. We determined that the hardware cost today is one tenth the price of just five years ago. So one major influence is the continuing drop in the real cost of hardware and software. In addition, the capabilities are much greater. The typical core or CPU is 40 percent more powerful than the equivalent computer last year.

Another significant development is the increasing accessibility of data in digital format and the speed in which it can be obtained. For example, Landsat data on the area in Indonesia that was struck by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami four years ago was available only a few days after the disaster.

Also, senior members of government now have a greater knowledge of GIS and its capabilities. During the past 10 years, the realization that GIS is an effective tool for increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of government and commerce is becoming more and more prevalent among our top decision makers.

Baumann: What developments in GIS do you anticipate in the next 10 years?

Tomlinson: A lot of the current trends are going to continue. Hardware will continue to get cheaper and more powerful. Software will get easier to use and more robust. I hope the universities will continue to expand their course offerings to meet the growing need for GIS professionals. Senior management will become increasingly aware of the benefits that accrue from the use of GIS in their organizations. We will see more countries adopting national policies, and GIS will be an important part of cabinet-level discussions. I hope that trained geographers will become a part of national decision-making processes. Also, I think that high-level military personnel should have a good knowledge of the capabilities and potential of a GIS.

I'm very positive about the future of GIS. It's the right technology at the right time. When I think of all the major problems that we face throughout the world today—overpopulation, food shortages, reduced agricultural production, adverse climate change, poverty—these are all quintessentially geographic problems. These problems are all concerned with the human relationship to the land, and this is where GIS can make its biggest contribution. GIS is the technology of our times and is uniquely suited to assist in solving the problems that we face.

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