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Winter 2004/2005
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"Crossing Borders"
A column by Doug Richardson,
Executive Director, Association of American Geographers

AAG to Honor GIS Pioneer Roger Tomlinson

Doug RichardsonGeographers and friends from around the world will gather to honor GIS pioneer Roger Tomlinson when he receives the first Robert T. Aangeenbrug Distinguished Career Award on April 7, 2005, at the Association of American Geographers (AAG) annual meeting in Denver, Colorado. This first-ever award will be formally bestowed at the AAG banquet by the association's Geographic Information Science and Systems Specialty Group.

Roger Tomlinson, often referred to as the "father of GIS," was born in Cambridge, England, in 1933. He received degrees in geography from Nottingham University in England and McGill University in Montreal and a Ph.D. from University College in London. After a stint in the Royal Air Force, he was given Canadian citizenship and joined Canada's government as a GIS developer in the early 1960s. In that position, he conducted a geographic analysis of Canada's vast land base, a major national need at the time. An outgrowth of that project in which he played the leading role was the development of the Canada Geographic Information System, widely regarded as the first serious GIS.

In his approach to geographic information systems, Tomlinson has consistently stressed the idea that GIS begins with and is based on geography. In a recent ArcNews article, he emphasized that the strength of the term GIS 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 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."

His career has focused on the development of major international GIS programs, ranging widely in geographic scope and content but with a special emphasis on environmental protection, natural resources management, national parks, and forests. Throughout his impressive career in geography and GIS, Tomlinson has served as a consultant to many governmental and international organizations, including the World Bank; several branches of the United Nations, including the FAO, UNEP, UNESCO, and UNIDO; the U.S. Bureau of the Census; the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Commerce; the U.S. Forest Service; the U.S. Geological Survey; several U.S. state governments; and the national governments of Australia, Canada, France, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

Tomlinson also places enormous importance on geographic education, calling it a "vital goal," and has long supported geography education at all levels of our schools and universities. He says that it was a high school geography teacher who first captured his imagination about the geography of the world around him. This led to his lifelong interest and pioneering career in the field.

Jack Dangermond sees Tomlinson as one of the great contributors to the origin and development of GIS. Regarding Tomlinson's career, Jack comments, "Roger has brought great distinction to our field by defining the basic and essential vision that GIS is both an extension to geographic science and a practical way to apply geographic knowledge to a whole world of applications. His work over the last three decades has also defined our field as a kind of profession with formal methodology for designing and implementing systems. Finally, Roger always makes me realize that GIS must first and foremost be focused on providing information that really matters (maps, reports, etc.) that improves our sciences, processes, and decision making."

It is fitting that this Distinguished Career Award is named after the late Dr. Robert Aangeenbrug, also an early leader in GIS and a contemporary of Roger Tomlinson. Aangeenbrug's impressive life included service as executive director of AAG and as chair of the Department of Geography at the University of South Florida. In the mid-1980s, Aangeenbrug was one of the principal motivating forces in the formation of AAG's Geographic Information Science and Systems Specialty Group.

For more information about Roger Tomlinson's award, his career, and his contributions to geography and GIS, visit To attend AAG's annual meeting at which this award will be presented or to learn more about the AAG Geographic Information Science and Systems Specialty Group, visit

Doug Richardson

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