Geographic Information Systems are sold across the globe. They are quickly spreading into many different industries and are getting with the times and heading onto the Web.

But where did it all begin? The term Geographic Information System was coined by a geographer in Ottawa. In the 1960s, Dr. Roger Tomlinson, often referred to as the “father of GIS” came up with the concept of a geographic information system where one could take different layers of maps and overlay them with information in a computer.

The first GIS ever implemented was the Canadian Geographic Information System (CGIS), which used the Canada Land Inventory to categorize land into seven areas of capabilities based on slope, climate, soil and texture – all of this information was then overlaid with several maps, according to Alex Miller, president of ESRI Canada in Toronto.

“GIS is a map that has been encoded intelligently and has a database behind it. It can be abstracted into points, lines or polygons. A point being a point of interest like a city on a small-scale map, or a utility valve. A line being a pipe or a river and a polygon representing areas. You can encode almost any map into a database, abstracting it into points, lines and polygons, and attach that record to the database record behind it,” Miller said.

Miller said CGIS was built on a mainframe in order to create the inventory. “It was the first comprehensive inventory of land capability across Canada.

“The concept was that you digitized a map into a computer and then did analytic work by overlaying it and coming up with a new resultant map.”

Miller noted that this was what GIS did for a number of years. Through the ’70s there was a lot of research and development on project work, but it wasn’t until the early ’80s that commercial GIS software emerged.

“A related industry in the ’70s was digital mapping. The idea at that time was that you could take the labourious work of drafting a map and computerize that process,” Miller said. “They were known as CAD systems.”

The CAD systems were not particularly successful in saving money, but they did create digital data, he said.

In 1981 ESRI released ArcInfo, a Geographic Information System. The first sale was to the New Brunswick department of natural resources. It was used for forest inventory.

Rowland Tinline, director of Queen’s University’s GIS lab in Kingston, Ont., said the New Brunswick implementation was probably the first wide use of GIS in the world.

So what happens now?

Tinline said it is amazing to think that the concepts that GIS was first founded on have not really changed. “Many of the first concepts of CGIS are still the same ones we’re working with today. The major evolution has been that the cost of the software has dropped and the computing power has increased. Our major restriction in the past was not the ideas, but having reasonable access.”

Campbell Forbes, a senior GIS analyst with Fredericton-based Geoplan Consultants, said the lower costs at the desktop level has opened GIS up to new industries.

“The latest technology is primarily embedding the typical GIS mapping file in more of an Oracle server application. It makes the management stuff a bit easier and gives space for the GIS people to do what they like to do,” he said.

Ed Cloutis said the functions of GIS haven’t really changed that much and he agreed that a lot of the changes have been toward making the software more user-friendly.

Cloutis, associate professor in the department of geography at the University of Winnipeg, said the customer friendly changes have helped spur the growth of GIS.

“In the bad old days, you would have needed somebody with a lot of computer skills to be able to handle the software – before the days of pull down menus you had to do a lot of command line stuff and that was just miserable.”

Miller agreed that GIS has not really changed very much.

“There’s a movie that was made by the National Film Board of Canada in 1966 that documented CGIS. It’s about a 20-minute movie, and it’s just shocking how little has changed in the objectives of what GIS does.”

The technology it runs on, however, has changed. It used to be main frames and $200,000 screens, now it’s personal computers on the desktop, big servers and the Internet.

Everyone agreed the Web is the next really big thing for GIS. More and more applications are finding their way onto the Web and there are already ways to download GIS-like maps.

Miller said the Web has emerged as a viable platform for GIS. “In particular, it allows us to extend the network outside of buildings. The Web technology is starting to become merged with mainstream IT technology. Microsoft with their .NET initiative has resulted in a blur between desktop technologies and Web technologies. Java is a Web language but people are building desktop applications with it.

“This will allow companies to allow others to access data through GIS as a Web service.”

Cloutis agreed there is an evolution toward making geographic data more a part of a business’s day-to-day operations, “So, it’s kind of moving it out of a GIS department and more to the operational side.”

He said that is a good thing because since it’s now also more user friendly, people are no longer as afraid of geographic data as they used to be.

Sandeep Kumar, assistant professor at the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Ryerson University in Toronto, said there is already software that allows people to display GIS maps on the Internet. He agreed that this move will help businesses and the general public use GIS more.

“I think that’s where the technology is moving.”

Forbes noted that in the past, people were working in a client/server atmosphere, where everybody had an application installed on their machine. “Being able to serve the mapping up on the Web allows the back room manager not to have to deal with complexities. Basically, you design an application that puts limited functionality on the Web that allows you to click on a button and say zoom me into this polygon, who owns it?

“That’s the sort of thing a lot of managers on the municipal level want to see.”

Tinline predicted that Web-based tools or services will be the way people get their GIS in the future.

“You have interactive mapping on the Web. Interactive mapping that is linked to a database and increases the functionality of the tools available on the Web. Data is increasingly being distributed on the Web, so it’s logical that the tools for analyzing it will also be distributed on the Web,” Tinline said. “You may decide you want to do this and that, but you don’t want a whole GIS package, so you’ll go download an applet. You’re going to lease the data, you may as well lease the tools.”

Where am I going to?

Tinline would like to see more emphasis put on building spatial statistics tools built into GIS.

“This is incorporating concepts of trying to assess distributions to see if they are by chance or if they mean something. When you see a pattern what does it mean? There are a whole bunch of techniques designed to derive patterns in space.

“If I sprinkled disease over Toronto, I would expect the pattern of the disease to follow that of the population, but if there is a lot of it in one spot – then I have to look at that. That is probably the biggest thing to incorporate into GIS. Only very recently have some of the larger GIS packages brought in modules on geo statistics. They are around, but they are not embedded in GIS.”

He also predicted that GIS will continue to spread into more and more industries, such as health, economics and sociology.

“Geography is a very wide discipline. We’re starting to see computer science students learning more GIS. We’re drawing a lot of engineering students. It’s aimed at a multi-disciplinary world.”

Miller noted that retail businesses are using GIS to determine where their retail sites should be.

“Where is the best place for my store? Where do I access the largest number of people? What are the demographics? GIS helps answer those questions very quickly,” Miller said.

According to Miller, there has been a move away from storing things in proprietary file to storing in databases.

“The database vendors have expanded to store spatial data. In the past the database wasn’t powerful enough to bring forward a map.”

ESRI has also been moving all of their product to a more open format. Their latest releases are being written in Visual Basic, which will allow more programs to share information with the GIS.

Cloutis thinks this is a good idea.

“I do like to see the ability to move data from one format to another,” he said. “The move to a common platform is a good thing.”

With the continued move to the Internet, wireless can’t be far behind, Kumar said.

Forbes agreed, saying that while GIS is not at the wireless stage, he can’t imagine it not going there.

Tinline said we are already seeing wireless applications, in conjunction with the Web-based stuff.

“There are applications in California where a person goes out with instructions for repairs – they essentially phone up and have a wireless download of their day’s activities complete with maps and at the end of the day they file a report back.”

He saw benefits to wireless GIS for wildlife biologists who are collecting information on animals.

“Right now, we have to tag an animal and then find that animal again to check on it. We could potentially have a device on the animal that allows them to be self-tracking. The information of where they are and how they are doing is transmitted back to a base,” Tinline said.

Wendy Lang, technical services technician for the City of Toronto Works and Emergency Services, surveying and mapping services, said there are companies working with GIS vendors to create applications that link to Palm devices.

“For example, with the whole West Nile Virus issue, there’s a company from the States that has its own system for tracking vector borne viruses such as West Nile. A lot of field workers need to input that information – where people are getting sick, locations where they’re testing mosquitoes – into the system,” she said. “They can put a dot on a map on their Palm device and say this is the location, and then they can input the information that goes with that location.”

Miller predicted that the largest use for wireless would be in vehicles, such as police or rescue workers or utilities.