Geographical Information System (GIS)

The 1987 Committee of Enquiry into the Handling of Geographic Information concluded that a Geographical Information System (GIS) is ‘a system for capturing, storing, checking, integrating, manipulating, analysing and displaying data which are spatially referenced to the Earth’.

In many respects this definition still holds true. For example, all GIS specialists would agree that at its heart GIS is all about working with data with some form of geographical reference. Many would also agree that the idea of a system is core and perhaps too the notion of GIS as a toolbox of processes and techniques to be applied to questions associated with geographic space. However, GIS is not just another type of software or an easily defined set of methods.

For some it is nothing less than an approach to science. For this reason many now prefer the term GISc (Geographical Information Science) and emphasise the shared the principles and theories which exist between GIS and the cognate fields of cartography, GPS, remote sensing, geocomputation and geostatistics.

Although this talk focuses on GIS specifically, anyone serious about using GIS ‘methods’, will at some point come into contact with at least some of these other areas, either in relation to data input, data processing or data output.

3D visualisation of Oxford Road Corridor
3D visualisation of the Oxford Road Corridor. Sources: ESPRC SCORCHIO; Crown Copyright OSMM (Edina, Digimap); Cities Revealed (Landmap)

If the definition of GIS seems broad, then the range of potential applications is still wider. Indeed, GIS can be used in any field of study which benefits from the investigation of the characteristics of geographical features and their inter-relationships, or which is concerned with understanding geographical pattern and process.

GIS has enjoyed tremendous success and has had a far reaching effect beyond its home discipline, but it is certainly not a panacea. This talk introduces some of the key concepts behind GIS, provides an overview of selected analysis techniques and encourages a reflective approach to GIS application.

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Download PDF slides of the presentation 'What is GIS?'