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Fall 2004
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Geographic Information Systems—Is the Term Still Meaningful?

By Roger Tomlinson, Tomlinson Associates Ltd.

Roger TomlinsonThere have been many synonyms attempted for the work of geographic information systems (GIS). I can recall "computer mapping," "land information systems," "geoinfo systems," "computer graphics," "spatial information systems," "geoengineering," "geomatics," "geospatial," "topographic systems," "computer-aided design," "conceptual surface analysis," "urban planning systems," "geographically referenced data storage and retrieval systems," "land use and natural resource systems," "interactive composite mapping systems," and many others. Some have different shades of meaning, but the term "geographic information systems" serves us well. It has clear meaning, uses real words rather than manufactured words, and has a relatively long history. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent successfully putting it into the public mind—"GIS" is recognized worldwide.

The strength of the term comes from its fundamentals. The word "geography" is not going to go away. It has been in use for hundreds (some would say thousands) of years. It means "earth description." That is our business. That is what we do. Geographic data is information used to describe the earth. It may be gathered using various sophisticated techniques (e.g., ground survey, air photointerpretation, GPS, photogrammetry, remote sensing, image analysis, population census). The result is geographic data. Geographic information systems accept, store, and analyze all types of geographic data to produce information for decision making purposes.

It is clear to me that the overall process is that of earth description; in short, it is geography. It has been demonstrated beyond any refutation that geography matters in human decision making. As Esri President Jack Dangermond put it recently, "GIS is the language of geography."

In any successful and expanding endeavor, such as GIS, there are those who want to "hitch a ride." Land surveyors adopted the term "geomatics" to rebadge their discipline. "Geospatial" is a recent addition to the lexicon, principally by government and private companies attempting to define a marketplace for their products. I come across a new term at least once a month. It is very difficult for a student or an organization that needs to identify something to invest in for the long term.

Now is not the time to dilute the recognition and acceptance of our work. Geography and GIS have the demonstrated capability of helping us describe our earth. Their adoption gives us tools that may not only describe but also lead to a better understanding of that world.

This article has been adapted from a letter that was originally written in response to an editorial in a recent GIS Monitor newsletter (

For more information, contact Dr. Roger Tomlinson, Tomlinson Associates Ltd. (tel.: 613-234-1001, e-mail:

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