By Adena Schutzberg

In my reading about GIS outside the geospatial press I'm always caught off guard when the acronym is misrepresented. It happens so frequently that I have a template I use to respond to the blogger/reporter/editor. Here it is:

I read: (URL goes here)
You/your staffer wrote: "quote of the passage including GIS written out erroneously"

In this case I believe you are referring to a geographic information system. See
A local paper expands GIS differently than we might expect. (Click for larger image)

How is GIS most often misrepresented? I mostly see global information system, though on occasion I see geographic imaging system or graphic imaging system. My guess is that these errors creep in because the interviewee/speaker either defines GIS only once, or not all, in the course of the discussion. That leaves the blogger or reporter to remember as best he or she can or to search the Web for "GIS."

The good news is that if you search the Web using Google, a query of "GIS" returns, as I write this, General Mills (GIS is its stock symbol), then and other ESRI sites, USGS, Wikipedia's entry for GIS and some GIS publications. The only other outlier is the Golf Industry Show, but I think that would be easily identified as irrelevant. Engaging Google to "define: GIS" (that's one of my favorite Google shortcuts; I use it all the time!), results in a page 95% full of quite acceptable definitions of geographic information system.

What, then, are the sources of these other expansions? Using "define" on Global Information System, I found just one return - and it's the definition for geographic information system! It's in a glossary in a wiki for a course called "Introduction to Computer Visualization" given by two Canadian universities. If you query the term on Google the first result is The global information system about AIDS is not geographic, nor is the Kia car brand's site but they do seem to be global, as are the fish and reef focused solutions. ReefBase includes a full online mapping solution.

Reefs at risk off the Florida coast, from the ReefBase Global Information System. (Click for larger image)

Geographic Imaging System has no definitions per Google, but is widely used in local, state and federal websites in the U.S. and worldwide. It's used to describe geospatial products and services and seems to nearly always be used in exactly the same way as geographic information system, though most references are to systems that include imagery (satellite or otherwise).

Graphic Imaging System was not available via a Google "define," but is widely used in reference to layout and printing solutions. I found a link to "Map for Digital Graphic Imaging System." Digital Graphic Imaging System is the name of a company. It's location? Satellite Beach, Florida!

Clearly, graphic imaging systems are something quite different from geographic information systems. The other expansions are closer. I like Global Information Systems, especially for those databases that are truly global, whether they are geographic or not. I'm comfortable with Geographic Imaging System, too, as long as there are images in there.

Having said all that, I still feel strongly that geography must be in the expansion of GIS as we in the community know it. "Global" and "graphic" can both be properties of such systems, but it's the geography that sets this technology apart and thus the term should be front and center. For that reason, I'm going to keep on sending my "GIS=" e-mails. From time to time, I get a "thank you" or a request for more information. Other recipients, I'm sure, ignore my note, and that's okay. It feels right to me to stand up for what I believe (the power of geography and GIS technology) and to help educate the world about it.

Published Friday, February 27th, 2009

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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