Putting Geography Where It Belongs: On Top

September 3, 1999

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Geography is the science of everything. There, I said it. That's right, I am claiming the high-ground for geography and GIS in the market space now being dominated by "IT" corporate lingo. There is a reason the "G" comes before "IS", and that is because without geography, nothing matters. Who am I to make such a bold assertion, well, that's unimportant, geography doesn't need a famous-face for endorsement, although there are plenty champions in the market today.

Recently I have witnessed some very healthy debates regarding the "place" (no pun intended) of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in the industry history books, market dominance, and technological relevance. One of those debates was at the URISA 99 conference in Chicago. Mr. Jack Dangermond and Mr. Carl Reed, two industry pioneers, presented a seminar on interoperability. As the presentation portion of the seminar wound down, the discussion developed about whether GIS is part of a larger umbrella called "IT", or was "IT" a component of GIS technology. While the debate was congenial and rather academic, it was clear to me who was leaning in which direction.

There was much discussion this past GITA conference, as well as the recent URISA conference about managing spatial and non-spatial information. Can someone share with me a piece of information that is non-spatial? I contend that if information is not presented in spatial (read: geographic) context, that it is not information, but simple, meaningless data (read: 1's and 0's). There is no such thing as "non-spatial information". Everything has a geographical component.

Consider this; What use would an AM/FM/GIS be if all the "plant" was in warehouse somewhere? None, right? The power and value in the AM/FM/GIS is in the geographic distribution of those items of "plant", and their characteristics. To go a step further, an accountant might state that each item of "plant" has a certain capital cost, but without understanding the geographic value, that is the cost for maintenance due to spatial distribution, that capital cost is not fully realized.

What is the fundamental rule in the real estate industry? Need I say more? Location, location, location. That's just another way of saying geography, geography, geography. The real estate industry has recognized this for a very long time, but it's curious to me that there must be a new acronym developed for that market sector, ie. CAMA. I'm not sure why it's necessary, but a rose is a rose is a rose. Geography is the thread, and GIS is the tool.

"IT" is very important, millions of people have been made aware of just how important it is in the last several years, and millions more will learn in the years to come. However, all of the best routers, switches, high-speed servers, gigabit internet backbones, e-commerce portals and virtual private networks are simply commodities, skeletons designed for support. Without the life-blood (e.g.. geographic information) flowing through those high-speed servers, portals and fiber-optic nerves, what good are they? While it takes specialized skills and expertise to maintain those "IT" skeletons, those professionals are not in the business of geographic information, nor should they be.

Perhaps the popularity of marketing new phrases or terms such as SIMS (spatial information management systems) is an attempt to reintroduce GIS in a more palatable and industry-friendly context, but it still has at its core the same tenets and principles that GIS has always had; that the "who, what, when, where, how and why" is important, and that is geography. I am not so against using new terms to describe geographic information systems, but I take it as a personal challenge to continue to educate my peers, colleagues and to mentor others in the basic premise that what makes us all tick is geography, plain and simple.


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