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

June 2007

Laying Down the Cornerstone of a GIS

"Father of GIS" Roger Tomlinson Explains Why Building a Successful Geographic Information System Requires Proper Planning from Day One

Perhaps no one knows the rudiments of a geographic information system better than Dr. Roger Tomlinson of Tomlinson Associates Ltd. in Ottawa, Canada.

  cover of Thinking About GIS
Dr. Roger Tomlinson's book, Thinking About GIS: Geographic Information System Planning for Managers, was published in its third edition this month.

A former Royal Air Force pilot who went on to become one of the world's most visionary geographers, Tomlinson is widely recognized today as the "father of GIS."

Tomlinson's pioneering work in conceiving and developing the first digital GIS—known as the Canada Geographic Information System for use by the Canada Land Inventory in the early 1960s—set the stage for today's technologies. He also coined the term geographic information system or GIS, a computer system people use to integrate, store, edit, analyze, and display geographically referenced data.

From 1977 on, Tomlinson has worked as a consulting geographer to more than 100 clients in the public and private sectors, where he established a practical and successful 10-stage method of implementing GIS. His distilled wisdom culminated in the Esri Press bestseller Thinking About GIS: Geographic Information System Planning for Managers. The book will be published in its third edition by Esri Press this month. Tomlinson will attend the 2007 Esri International User Conference in San Diego from June 18-22, where he will autograph copies of Thinking About GIS and conduct a workshop for GIS managers. (The autograph session will be from noon to 2:00 p.m., Tuesday, June 19, in the Spatial Outlet.)

Though there were early trials and errors, Tomlinson says GIS methodology has withstood the test of time and changing technology. The book covers GIS planning from A to Z including considering the strategic purpose of the project, describing the information products, creating a data design, determining the system requirements, and completing an implementation plan.

"I have been working all my life planning geographic information system . . . learning how to put a successful system in place and learning the things that you've really got to worry about and those that you can ignore. We've evolved a methodology that has worked extremely well," Tomlinson, 73, told ArcWatch during a recent interview, adding, "We don't advertise. The only advertising we've ever done is I have a number plate on my car called 'GIS One.' It was a present from my wife."

The new edition contains revisions to chapter 10 that delve into system requirements including the latest information such as bandwidth demand and 2007 hardware configurations and pricing. "The methodology adapts beautifully to the new technologies coming and to the new things the software can do that [help in] creating information products for our clients," Tomlinson says.

The title of Tomlinson's book, Thinking About GIS, goes directly to the heart of his methodology. He says that if people fail to think carefully about what information products they want out of their organization's GIS before they begin to build one, their project could be doomed or at least delayed. Money would be wasted; time lost; and, in some cases, systems abandoned or never used to their full potential.

That's why Tomlinson urges that anyone thinking about a GIS first create a description of each information product needed that includes

Tomlinson calls these information product descriptions (IPDs) the building blocks of the planning process and this stage of the methodology the "mental heavy lifting.'' But he stresses that if this step is ignored, the GIS project will be in for a world of hurt later.

Large agencies have wasted huge sums by failing to first identify what information products would be needed by the organization, according to Tomlinson. "They'd just go out and buy some hardware and then some software and then say 'Oooh, do we need data?' and they get some data and say 'Now what do we do?' They had no idea," he says. "There were expensive mistakes.''

Laying the groundwork will also help in selecting the necessary hardware and software to buy. "If you know what's got to come out of the system, you will know then what data must go into the system and how to make it happen," Tomlinson says.

Though Tomlinson spends less time doing consulting work than in the past, he says he enjoys speaking to groups about the importance of planning a GIS and sharing his hard-earned knowledge through books.

"I wanted to put the methodology in the book because I can't duplicate myself," Tomlinson says. "If I put it in a book, I can teach many others how to use it. I would hope GIS professors use it as a course book."

Over the last 45 years, the seeds the "father of GIS" helped plant came to fruition. Today, more than one million people worldwide use GIS for thousands of different reasons. And the technology is poised to make an even greater impact in society as more organizations begin to find GIS as vital a system as their workplace computers.

"If you went into a company today or a government department and found they weren't using computers, you would think they were a little old-fashioned," Tomlinson said. "In five years' time, if you go into any company or government department and they are not using GIS, you will think they are a little old-fashioned. They are almost there already. It's almost universal."

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