From the time the first pixellated maps crept out into the digital landscape, GIS (Geographic Information System) has quickly evolved to become an important set of tools in environmental study, planning and management. Today, GIS is a very different animal from its 1960s' ancestors. Graham Morgan looks at how it has developed.

Geography is a naturally embracing discipline dealing with the study of the earth, its landscapes, inhabitants and processes; an ambitious endeavour not only requiring access to vast amounts of information on a whole range of phenomena, but also demanding the ability to assimilate and analyse that information. We have come to rely on computers to work with large quantities of data, but for a long time we had a problem — computers could only handle rather simple words and numbers.

How did we get here?

It may seem obvious now, but all of the data that we use in the study of the earth, its inhabitants and the environment can be drawn on a map. This simple fact has massive planning implications. It means that all this data can be linked by location and used together to better understand a situation at any given place. For planners, researchers and decision-makers it means that they are able to take many factors into account to arrive at better-informed conclusions.

That is a big claim, but consider this: can you think of any information that you work with that could not be drawn on a map? It is intuitive that we can map physical things such as lamp posts, buildings, rivers, vegetation cover, soil type, geology, or mountain tops. But many other phenomena can also be represented in this way, such as rainfall, social inclusion, incidence of disease, risk of flooding, potential to generate electricity from wind, or the price of cheese.

Traditionally, spatial analysis of geographic data might have been performed by physically overlaying sheets of clear acetate, with each sheet depicting one type of information. For example, layers representing population density, soil type, geology, groundwater level, and proximity of the road network might have been overlain to identify areas of suitable land for the location of a waste disposal site. This technique can work well for discrete projects, but is severely limited in scalability to address larger areas! It would also be rather difficult to update the data on each of the sheets and share it with others.

We needed the support of computing to deal with larger study areas, a greater number of factors and the maintenance of up-to-date information, but the information technology of the day simply was not able to deal with the complexities of location and spatial relationships. Geographical Information Systems (GIS) were born out of these needs. For a long time GIS was regarded as rather eccentric, and it existed on the fringes of the IT world. Its role has been to complement more mainstream information technology by providing the facilities to work with the locational aspect of data. This meant providing the capabilities to capture, store, manipulate, analyse, display and share locational data.

Fast forward to today, and GIS has matured significantly to blend with conventional IT. Rather than existing as a set of technologies on the periphery, GIS capabilities are increasingly available within “industry standard” programming languages and databases. International standards bodies have facilitated these improvements. In the data centre, databases such as Oracle and Microsoft SQL Server now inherently understand location (along with those basic words and numbers). This means that the databases know how to store spatial data, how to search for it within SQL queries and how to index it for fast performance.

Increasingly, programming languages, software libraries, frameworks and development tools are having support added for spatial data types so that regular software developers can work directly with geographic information. There is still some catching up to do but it is now safe to say that spatial has gone mainstream.

Going mainstream has meant that there are now many more programmers who can adopt the technology and bake it into their applications. A great example of this can be found on smart phones where the likelihood is that most of the applications are “location aware”. They use their knowledge of your current location — supplied either by the network you are using, or the GPS (Global Positioning System) device in your phone — to present information that is more relevant to you. This does not mean that they will all present a map. Google search, for example, will present results that consider your location such as local hairdressers or cinemas.

For a company that made its debut with the simplest web page on the planet — a single box in the middle of a white screen — Google has had an inordinate impact on the GIS world. More than any other company, Google has made geography available to the masses in ways that are relevant, accessible and free. No one within the industry saw that coming. Google has not just demonstrated the value of location in making information relevant, it has also set the standard for web mapping application responsiveness.

Information consumers from the kitchen table to the board room now have an expectation that information will be presented to them visually and that interaction with online maps will be fast.

Enabling the value of nature

The capability of GIS to bring diverse sets of information together was fundamental in enabling the development of the Government’s recent White Paper on the environment, The Natural Choice: Securing the Value of Nature (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 2011).

Geographic information and technology will be vital in meeting the Government’s goal, that “this should be the first generation to leave the natural environment of England in a better state than it inherited”.

In working towards this goal, the paper establishes missions for two time horizons. “Our 2020 mission is to halt overall biodiversity loss, support healthy, well-functioning ecosystems and establish coherent ecological networks, with more and better places for nature for the benefit of wildlife and people.

“By 2060, our essential natural assets will be contributing fully to robust and resilient ecosystems, providing a wide range of goods and services so that increasing numbers of people enjoy benefits from a healthier natural environment.”

This paper has been well received within the environmental domain; the business and commerce community has been somewhat quieter. The maturity of GIS data and technology was essential before such a far-reaching vision like this could ever have been conceived. It requires that the potential impact of policies must be examined from a much broader perspective than ever before as a range of environmental outcomes must be considered along with the familiar economic, social and political concerns.

Back to Earth

When technologies represent an intoxicating idea they can be very exciting indeed. As natural optimists our expectations can reach great heights; there have, however, been numerous failed GIS implementations over the years for a variety reasons. It is important to remember that GIS is not a panacea or a universal hammer; it is simply a set of technologies, data and methods that can be applied to support decision-makers.

GIS in practice

Many working in the environmental domains will already be familiar with the use of GIS. There is a wealth of printed and online information describing the use of spatial technologies within various environmental disciplines (for example, try a quick web search for “environment gis journal”). As an illustration of the range of environmental applications of GIS, some example overviews from the author’s personal experience in this area are provided below.

Environmental impact assessment of the East Coast Armaments Complex

In preparation for the Olympic Games in 2000, the Australian navy needed to relocate ammunition from Sydney. After its preferred location was blocked during public consultation, the pressure was on to select and approve an acceptable site quickly — the 2000 games were not going to wait. A location was identified at an existing naval site near Melbourne but it was by no means guaranteed to succeed as there are important wetlands in the area which are home to migratory birds; it is also the only place on mainland Australia which is used by the orange-bellied parrot. The use of a Geographic Information System was seen as key to enabling an efficient assessment process by providing the means to present evidence in an open and accessible manner, or as one commander put it, “to put everything on the table where we can all see it”. This approach exploited one of the great strengths of GIS: that it can provide a visual index to information. The geographic extent and properties of each dataset can be displayed to make it easy to see at a glance which area a dataset pertains to and what exists at a given place.

The Natural Resources and Values Information System (NRVIS) of Ontario

The NRVIS system was developed in the mid-1990s to improve the way in which the forests of Ontario were managed (OMNR, 2008). The Canadian province of Ontario has a lot of forestry and much of it is “old growth”, ie original, natural, came with planet, forestry. The practice of the time concerned the timber above all else and the reduction of “old growth” eventually lead to a showdown with the timber industry at Temagami. In a successful outcome, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources significantly altered its focus to take a much more integrated approach that considered the forests as a whole. This required knowing more than simply where the stands of timber are. Now the ministry needs to know about everything else “of value” within the forests, including habitats, animal migration routes, the rights of first nations people, slope stability, and so on.

The NRVIS system captures all of this information and provides it to forestry companies for use when preparing their forest management plans, applying for permits and conducting operations. This is a great example of how GIS is used to support a holistic approach that enables decision-makers to balance economic, environmental and social needs in a collaborative manner.

Kent County Council habitat mapping programme

By integrating GIS and computer technology, the habitat mapping programme has significantly reduced survey costs while improving data quality and reducing survey time.

The first county-wide habitat survey was completed manually by field surveyors who hand coloured 1:10,000 Ordnance Survey paper maps with the habitat type. This approach took more than a dozen staff over four years to complete. The latest iteration of the habitat mapping programme is a different story altogether. Part funded by the European Union and due for completion in 2012, it uses an entirely electronic approach with aerial photographic digital mosaics and GIS together with all-weather computer tablets and GPS for field data capture. Using the 1:2,500 scale Ordnance Survey MasterMap data as the background, habitat data is added from aerial photographic interpretation using the “habitat tool”, a bespoke .Net ArcGIS development. The tool provides data consistency using lookup tables and ensures data complicity with the complex rules required by the habitat classification. The interpretation is validated by field survey using the tool to capture species data. The validation is assisted by user defined indicator species linked to habitat types and has the capacity to display enriched data by highlighting rare species, correlations to other habitat classifications or providing html links to additional documents.

The use of GIS and the tool virtually removes data input errors and substantially increases data capture speed to the extent that, when complete, the programme will have taken a maximum of seven staff less than two years to deliver a product at a far more detailed scale than the original survey.


As the world’s population climbs past 7 billion people, we are reminded that we are faced with significant challenges that are global in scale. Climate change, food shortage, species loss, sea level rise, energy provision, desertification and security are among the problems that span national borders and are likely to require truly enormous datasets and computing power to understand and to develop sustainable strategies to address them. GIS will continue to evolve to enable us to tackle planning issues on local, national and global scales.

Last reviewed 28 February 2012