GIS Day: A Celebration

Caitlin Dempsey


On November 19, 1999 thousands of businesses, governments and schools participated in GIS Day. Coming on the tail end of Geography Awareness Week (November 14-20), GIS Day was the first of its kind. Hosted by current users of GIS (Geographic Information Systems) technology, this event was a unique, worldwide effort to bring knowledge and encourage interest in this growing field to millions. Activities portraying the applicability of GIS technology were showcased in the form of demonstrations, map galleries and even through online interaction. The event is being sponsored by the National Geographic Society, the Association of American Geographers, the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science, and ESRI, one of the leaders in GIS software.

What is GIS?

GIS is a rapidly growing technological field that incorporates graphical features with tabular data in order to assess real-world problems. What is now the GIS field began around 1960, with the discovery that maps could be programmed using simple code and then stored in a computer allowing for future modification when necessary. This was a welcome change from the era of hand cartography when maps had to be painstakingly created by hand.  Even small changes required the creation of a new map.  The earliest version of a GIS was known as Computer Cartography and involved simple linework to represent land features.

The capabilities of GIS are a far cry from the simple beginnings of computer cartography. In essence, GIS can be thought of as a high-tech equivalent of a map.  Not only can paper maps be produced far quicker and more efficiently, the storage of data in an easily accessible digital format enables complex analysis and modeling not previously possible.  The reach of GIS expands into all disciplines and has been used for such widely ranged problems as prioritizing sensitive species habitat to determining optimal real estate locations for new businesses.

The key word to this technology is Geography – this usually means that the data (or at least some proportion of the data) is spatial, in other words, data that is in some way referenced to locations on the earth.  Coupled with this data is usually data known as attribute data.  Attribute data generally defined as additional information which can then be tied to spatial data.  An example of this would be schools.  The actual location of the schools is the spatial data.  Additional data such as the school name, level of education taught, school capacity would make up the attribute data.  It is the partnership of these two data types that enables GIS to be such an effective problem solving tool.

Most of us have already been affected in some way by GIS without evening realizing it.  If you’ve ever using an Internet mapping program to find directions, congratulations,  you’ve personally used GIS.  The new supermarket chain on the corner was probably located using GIS to determine the most effective place to meet customer demand.

GIS Day serves to highlight all the various applications of GIS.  Take advantage of this day next year to learn more about GIS.  To find an event or area of interest near you, visit the GIS Day web site. More elaborate information can also be found at this website explaining the origins and motivations behind establishing GIS Day.

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.

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