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Are we going around a circle?

Prof David W. Wong
George Mason University
Fairfax, USA
[email protected]

It has been almost half a century since the first GIS, the Canadian Geographic Information System (CGIS), became operational. CGIS was developed with the objective to build and maintain a land inventory of the vast Canadian territory so that the government can manage the environment and natural resources more efficiently. However, the issue of sustainable development was not a main societal concern at that time.

Entering the new millennium, the concerns for environmental quality and global change have increased significantly. These concerns were accentuated by the report on global warming released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007. The idea of using GIS as a major tool to tackle environmental issues and to attain a sustainable global earth system is revived, as this idea is not much different from the original intent of developing CGIS almost half a century ago. However, using GIS alone will not be sufficient to manage land resources, monitor global change, tackle environmental ills, and support decision-making related to the physical earth.

The take-off of GIS development during the 80s and 90s was partly fuelled by the increasing availability of spatial data. The development and free dissemination of TIGER/Line Files by the U.S. Bureau of the Census and the completion of the USGS Digital Line Graph (DLG) database provided data sources for mapping elements in the built and physical environments. The launching of Landsat and other satellites, particularly by NASA, not just produced massive amount of spatial data, but offered the capability of monitoring environmental change at various geographical scales with global coverage. Thanks to the US open data policy, these framework datasets are freely or close to freely available to anyone in the world, and thus stimulated scientific inquiries. Having high quality and inexpensive data of the earth is critical in monitoring and managing different aspects of the earth system. These efforts should continue and refine.

While the quality of geospatial data is improving, we are still struggling to make different types of geospatial technology work synergistically with each other. An obvious strength of GIS is its ability to coalesce multiple themes of data to explore their spatial relationships. The community has been leveraging this GIS capability for sometime in studying the land surface, but has been slow in exploiting this capability fully in analysing remotely sensed data of the atmosphere and ocean. Some of these data have the third dimension (elevation or depth) which cannot be easily handled by GIS. Meanwhile, many earth scientists use tools other than GIS to conduct their inquiries, and many of their tools, such as the global circulation model (GCM) and computational fluid dynamic model (CFD), are computational intensive.

Some of these tools have used remotely sensed data as model inputs, and the model outputs are occasionally brought back to GIS for display and analysis. Tighter integration between GIS and these computational tools for earth systems is needed to fully exploit the benefits of multidisciplinary research to sustain the planet earth. Through the development of spatial data infrastructures, not only traditional geospatial data are now available via the Internet, remote sensing data are becoming accessible from various GISlike portals. The challenge is to provide more analytical and modelling capabilities on these Web-based systems for scientists and GIS experts to conduct their research. On the other hand, these Web-based systems can play a significant role in educating the public and support decision making. Web-based GIS can be a major platform to promote and support sustainable development through education, research and decision support.