EditorSpeak: Mapping the history of GIS

EditorSpeak: Mapping the history of GIS


Prof. Arup Dasgupta
Managing Editor

When one is a part of history, the need to document the present for the future seems to be unimportant. The history of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) falls in this category. What is GIS? Today we have settled on the broad term ‘geospatial’ or ‘geomatics’ to net all systems, devices and applications which have anything to do with spatial analysis. But in those early days (the 1960s), the integration of computers and geography was not known as GIS. In the United Kingdom, the frustration of creating an Atlas of Great Britain and Northern Ireland which became out of date even as it was published led B.P. Bickmore to the conclusion that computerisation was the only way to rapidly collect, collate, and analyse data and publish maps. Others who can be termed as pioneers in this field are R. Tomlinson of the Canada Geographical Information System, who overcame the issues of costs and time by adopting a computerised approach for the Canadian Land Inventory; Howard Fisher, who set up the Harvard Laboratory for Computer Graphics; and Jack Dangermond, who worked in the HLCG and later went on to establish the Environmental Systems Research Institute or Esri.

The Harvard Laboratory for Computer Graphics was the cradle of modern GIS. It pioneered the concept of spatial analysis for environmental, urban planning and landscape design. In fact, the attempt to trace the technological roots of any successful project in the geospatial arena will most likely end up in a product developed here. One of these is Esri’s ArcGIS, which draws its lineage from SYMAP, GRID and ODYSSEY. SYMAP was the first product of HLCG. Carl Steinitz and D. Sinton of the Harvard Graduate School of Design spliced SYMAP to a raster-based system called GRID to address environment issues. ODYSSEY, a project closest to modern-day GIS, had many of these luminaries in the development team. Nick Chrisman, in his book Charting the Unknown, mentions Angus Hill from the Ontario Department of Land Records, Philip Lewis from the University of Wisconsin and Ian McHarg from the University of Pennsylvania. An interesting side note is that the names associated with GIS, Ian McHarg, Philip Lewis, Howard Fisher and Jack Dangermond, are from the field of landscape architecture.

Marketing of ODYSSEY was beset with problems and the laboratory sadly lost its funding and was dissolved in 1991. However, its success lies in commercial products like ArcGIS, Synercom, Computer Vision and Intergraph, which were promoted by members and carry the genes of SYMAP, ODYSSEY and others. There were failures too and one day these also may be written up as case studies of how not to commercialise advanced technologies. The development of GIS spans 50-odd years and many countries; it is time that a proper historical record is created for future reference.