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Dr Richard Waite answers questions on GIS

Richard Waite This GIS interview (PDF) is also available to download.

1. What is GIS?

GIS (Geographic Information System) is a powerful technology which allows location-based data to be visualised, analysed and shared.

GIS encompasses the hardware, software and data that allow layers of information about a location to be analysed, helping organisations to think geographically and turn the information to their advantage.

GIS is invaluable for solving many real-world problems - from managing assets and analysing crime patterns to tracking disease and monitoring climate change.

2. When was GIS first developed and for what applications?

The first operational GIS was developed by Dr Roger Tomlinson for the Canadian Federal department of Forestry and Rural Development. It was used to store, analyse and manipulate data to determine land capability for rural Canada. ESRI was founded by Jack Dangermond as Environmental Systems Research Institute, Inc., in 1969 as a privately held consulting firm that specialised in land-use analysis projects.

A detailed GIS time line has been put together by the CASA team at UCL.

(CASA - the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis is an initiative within University College London to develop emerging computer technologies in several disciplines which deal with geography, space, location, and the built environment. As an interdisciplinary research centre expertise is drawn from archaeology, architecture, cartography, computer science, environmental science, geography, planning, remote sensing, geomatic engineering, and transport studies.)

3. Which different types of business use GIS?

Geographic information is at the heart of every organisation. It exists in almost every business system as customer addresses, property assets, operational areas, administrative boundaries, road and delivery or access routes to name but a few examples. All industries can benefit from GIS technology, and markets that are starting to integrate GIS into the core of their activity and strategy include: Insurance; Retail; Oil and Gas; Defence & National Security; Education; Local & Central Government; Public Safety; Utilities and Telecommunications.

4. How does using GIS help businesses in terms of decision making, planning, marketing and profitability?

GIS encompasses the hardware, software and data that allow layers of information about a location to be organised, analysed and visualised, helping organisations to identify trends, patterns and correlations that can only be revealed through geography.

GIS is invaluable for solving many real-world problems – from managing assets and analysing crime patterns to tracking disease and making decisions when monitoring climate change.

5. How much does the GIS market contribute to the British economy?

The AGI (Association for Geographic Information) states that current estimates of the size of the UK Geographic Information (GI) business vary from over £650M to around £900M, but GI underpins much more value in the public, private, academic, commercial and consumer sectors.

6. How will using GIS in geography lessons help pupils to better understand geographical issues and places?

Using GIS in geography lessons – indeed in most subjects including history, biology and religious education – brings the geographical aspects of these subjects to life and gives students an inspiring learning experience. GIS is a modern tool which aids geographical investigation while developing student’s ICT skills and also the mental skills for problem solving and understanding of relationships in the environment. Students can explore and analyse their world using GIS and acquire GIS skills that they can transfer to higher education and the workplace.

7. What advice would you give a young person interested in a career in GIS? For example, do they need a geography degree &/or postgraduate qualification in GIS?

GIS is a fast moving technology that is becoming more pervasive – in fact, it really is becoming an indispensable part of daily life. As a result, there is an increasing requirement for people with strong geographical analysis and computer science skills to help organisations unlock the true potential of this powerful technology. While there are learning paths to becoming a GIS professional, I believe the key is introducing students to industry standard GIS at an early age, and now that GIS is part of the national curriculum there has never been a better time.

8. Many people confuse Google Earth or Bing Maps with GIS, what is the major benefit you get with GIS that you can’t get on Google Earth or Bing Maps?

Google and Microsoft have done an amazing job of publishing online the imagery base maps with visualisation technologies that are easy to use and are built on a Web 2.0 platform. The impact of these services on the GIS industry has been significant – opening up geospatial visualisation to many new users.

Web tools such as Google Earth provide new ways for GIS users to make their knowledge available to broader audiences. They do not replace GIS systems, but rather complement the way geographic knowledge is accessed by a non-GIS audience.

GIS is a sophisticated technology, with a rich information model and data management infrastructure for maintaining geographic data. It integrates thousands of tools for cartography, visualisation, spatial analysis and can be customised to support a variety of workflows.

Google Earth and Bing Maps are essentially visualisation tools; a GIS provides data management and spatial analysis tools as well as more sophisticated visualisation.

9. What developments are we likely to see in the development of GIS over the next 10 years?

GIS is a mature technology, yet is still in the early stages of adoption and its application for many industries is only just beginning to be developed and understood. Over time we expect GIS to evolve and become one of the most universal and important technologies for our world. At the core of GIS is the concept that it uses place or location for integrating all information. Eventually it will be seen as a bridge between disciplines and organisations.

There is no question that the Web, web services, and service-oriented architecture (SOA) provide a new pattern for implementing GIS. This is a very exciting time for GIS and GIS professionals. We are seeing increasing levels of interest, growth and adoption. This is driven, in part, by the growing awareness caused by consumer mapping/visualisation platforms, and even more by the growing awareness and benefits of GIS for multiple market applications.

“Geographic location is a fundamental reference point in the physical world. As enterprise business systems evolve to more accurately reflect real-world conditions, the capability to represent location will become increasingly critical.”

Richard was interviewed in March 2010.

Dr Richard Waite's biography

Richard Waite has been Managing Director of ESRI (UK) Ltd since 2005. Acknowledged as a national expert and a leading Government advisor on recycling issues, Richard’s passion for the environment has been the driving force behind a career spanning almost 30 years. This concern for the environment, combined with his entrepreneurial vision, led Richard to set up and run the first major UK household waste recycling facility. He is also a published author and a qualified commercial mediator.

Before joining ESRI (UK), Richard was Managing Director of CAPS Solutions Ltd. Prior to that he spent 14 years as a management consultant with Coopers & Lybrand (now Pricewaterhouse Coopers) and also ran his own management consultancy business. 

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