Will the Real GIS Please Stand Up!

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Think about how many times a day you say, see, or write the words “geographic information systems.” Or, more likely, it’s the acronym – GIS – that you use frequently. GIS, gee-eye-yes. How smoothly it rolls off your tongue. How familiar and soothing the letters are, something you know so well. I find it difficult to remember when I didn’t know the acronym, or the first time I heard it. Though now is when my graduate school office-mate would pipe up to remind me of that noisy departmental holiday party in December 1991, when a professor asked me on what I might focus for my dissertation work and I shouted over the crowd – having had a glass or two of eggnog – that it would somehow involve “GSI” – because I enjoyed it so much. Sigh.

But what about that curious phenomenon of there being other entities that use the GIS acronym? Sacre bleu! Could there be other GISs out there that are as familiar to their owners as our GIS is to us? Would they be as accustomed to saying, writing, and reading “GIS” every day as we are? Could they be having that experience yet never be thinking about a database, a map, or a shapefile? I set out to explore this situation.

My first outreach was to Jonathan Chevreau, a financial columnist and founder of the Financial Independence Hub. Last summer, he had written an article about how “Retirees should be happy not to qualify for GIS.” On the phone, Jon explained that the Canadian’s Guaranteed Income Supplement is one component of the retirement funds that the government provides its citizens; specifically it’s the portion targeted towards those having the fewest resources. Do they call it GIS? Yes, all the time. Had he ever heard of geographic information systems? Perhaps, maybe, it was what came up when he was searching online for his GIS, but overall he was not aware of it.

And so it went. I had a lovely email exchange with Mrs. Mary Ocansey, the head of admissions at the Ghana International School in the capital city of Accra. Their GIS was founded in 1955 (older than ours!) and has for decades followed a mission to “provide an internationally diverse school experience that instills an understanding of each other, promotes holistic development, life skills and learning through a rigorous curriculum that meets international standards.” Yes, they have always used the GIS acronym, pronouncing each letter individually. (I encountered nobody who admitted to saying “gis” pronounced as a single word.) Had Mrs. Ocansey previously known about our GIS? Not before my inquiry, but she then did her own research and noted, “Maybe one day we will be able to consider a completely nonpolitical map that does not exaggerate the size of more powerful nations. That would be refreshing!”

Multiple schools exist that have the GIS acronym. The Garden International School in Malaysia declined my request for an interview, but a staff member from the Glasgow Independent School district in Kentucky said they use the acronym informally but not officially. Did they know about our GIS? Uh, no.

They take more ownership of their GIS at the Gladwin Intermediate School, in Gladwin, Michigan. Their motto (“GIS, A Great Place for Kids!”) is on their letterhead. The principal, Mr. Paul Coté, explained that their school had been named when it was built in the 1950s and served fourth to eighth graders, but that the school now houses third to fifth grades. What else did I learn about their GIS?  That to find Gladwin, using the mitten metaphor, first go to where the tip of the thumb is, then move left (westward) “to the main part of your hand and go about an inch in. Detroiters would call us northerners, but we’re really not so much.” After only a moment of hesitation, Mr. Coté realized that he did in fact also know something about our GIS, giving crime mapping as an example. Way to go, Mr. Coté!

Neil Stickland, the marketing manager of Global Inkjet Systems, is on a mission to have their GIS be THE GIS, at least within the inkjet community. From a branding perspective, they’re now actively pushing to use their GIS acronym more regularly. Since he knows our GIS well, he was once able to straighten out a confused mapper who showed up at their booth at an inkjet printer expo. He also knows what a coup it would be if they could somehow acquire the GIS.com domain name, and we laughed together about how unlikely that would be.  

When the Green Iguana Society was started in 1999, one of their collaborators advised against using the acronym, knowing that GIS was already becoming established as referring to geographic information systems. But the group liked the sound of it anyway, and GIS became their standard way of referring to the society amongst themselves.  According to Deena Hergert, one of the original founders, the all-volunteer-effort has waned over the years, but their message board remains active. It’s a much better place to ask questions about green iguanas than the GIS Stack Exchange.  

Acronyms can be fraught with risk for novices who aren’t familiar with the terminology used by experts. For example, GIS is the 3-letter ticker symbol used by the New York Stock Exchange for General Mills, Inc. (NYSE:GIS), but in this case, it would be uncommon to ever refer to General Mills as “GIS.” According to Tom Herman, who wrote a weekly tax column for The Wall Street Journal for more than 16 years and now writes a monthly tax column for the Journal’s wealth management section,  only professional “specialists” on the floor of the NY Stock Exchange might say, “We just got 1000 shares of GIS.” One mistake, and you might inadvertently own 1000 shares of Gildan Activewear (NYSE:GIL), Gap, Inc. (NYSE:GPS), or Guess Jeans (NYSE:GES) instead! Tom’s advice? Don’t try to speak in ticker symbols!

So, it’s probably just as well that I didn’t manage to connect with anyone about Egypt’s General Intelligence Service, Nigeria’s Graduate Internship Scheme, Qatar’s Gulf International Services, or the Ghana Immigration Service. Leaving coherent and compelling voice messages about this GIS quest didn’t get any easier with practice. However, I’m still disappointed that no one ever called me back about gas-insulated switchgears. I think some mutual education might have taken place.    

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