Geographic Information Systems and Geographic Information Science

Within the domain of geography, the terms geographic information systems, geographic information science, and geospatial data science are used in a variety of often ambiguous and overlapping ways. This tutorial will introduce some perspectives on those terms that can be useful for understanding how geospatial technology can be useful for answering different types of questions.

Geographic information systems and geographic information science


Geography is a term with a wide variety of meanings and there is no single definition that covers the variety of activities that are performed by people that call themselves geographers or are in some way associated with the discipline of geography. Indeed, there are probably as many definitions of geography as there are geographers and the question of what geography is has triggered many (sometimes vicious and arguably pointless) debates among geographers.

For the purposes of this tutorial, we will use the following three definitions of geography:

What is where, why is it there, and why do we care?

Human, physical, and GIS

Geography is what geographers do.

What is where, why is it there, and why do we care?

In 2002, geographer Charles Gritzner proposed this three part definition of the types of questions explored in geography:

  1. What is where: This is probably what most Americans think geography is based on their experience in elementary school geography memorizing the names of state capitals. The map is an exemplar of this idea as a graphical representation of where things are on the surface of the earth. "What is where" questions are commonly answered with geospatial technologies
  2. Why is it there: This aspect of geography deals with the processes and causes that put things where they are. These questions can be more interesting than "what is where" questions in that they give an understanding of how the past led to the present, and allow us to build models to anticipate what might happen in the future
  3. Why do we care: This aspect of geography deals with values and ethics. Values questions are often embedded within and hidden under the representations used in geospatial technology

Human, physical, and GIS

While activities that can be considered geography are performed in a variety of different professions, many (if not most) people that call themselves geographers work in the academy (colleges and universities). Within university geography departments there are three broad domains of study:

  1. Human geography explores human phenomena and commonly overlaps with sociology, anthropology, economics and history
  2. Physical geography is a natural science that commonly overlaps with geology, biology, and ecology
  3. Geographic information systems (GIS) focuses on the development and use of geospatial technology

Although academic geographers commonly focus primarily on only one of these fields, the boundaries are not rigid. Many human and physical geographers use geographic information systems in their research. Physical geography often studies environmental phenomena that are caused or affected by humans, and human geographers often study the interaction between people and their environments. College instructors will commonly teach courses in all three areas.

Geography is what geographers do.

Everything that is happens in a space and time. Therefore, everything has a history and everything has a geography. There is no Pope in geography that says what can and cannot be studied in geography, and since few people know (or care) what contemporary academic geography is, academic geographers are often free to cross disciplinary boundaries and study what they want. Therefore, almost anything can be and is studied within geography. If you visit the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers, you can see presentations on a very wide variety of topics by a very heterogeneous collection of researchers.

Geographic Information Systems

Geographic information systems (GIS or GI Systems) are computer systems used for capturing, storing, processing, analyzing, and communicating geospatial data.

GIS is the use of information technology to store information about what is where. From this perspective, GIS is useful as a tool in a variety of applications:

The flow of geospatial data in GIS

Consumer and Business Applications

GIS is the technology behind a wide variety of consumer applications like Google Maps.

Google Maps

GIS is also used by businesses in ways that customers do not see.

Location is a fundamental aspect of doing business in terms of locating retail outlets, optimizing supply chains, or creating effective marketing campaigns. Businesses use GIS to collect and analyze a wide variety of information on suppliers, customers and competitors that can inform crucial business decisions.

Business location analytics

Extractive industries like oil/gas, mining and forestry use GIS to maintain inventories of assets and perform analysis needed to support successful exploration and exploitation of resources.

Oil and gas assets viewed in ArcMap

Precision agriculture uses geospatial data to assess field variability, ensure optimal use of inputs, and maximize the output from a farm. Remotely sensed data, along with GPS-enabled farm equipment and GIS analysis allows farmers to deliver precise amounts of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and irrigation needed in different parts of their fields to maximize harvests and minimize costs.

Precision agriculture

Government and Military Applications

GIS is used extensively in the public sector.

Almost all city governments of any size maintain information on municipal works (water, sewer, gas, etc) and property ownership in GIS databases. Accordingly, governments frequently employ GIS technicians, analysts and programmers to maintain these data and systems.

Champaign County GIS

The use of crime mapping as a tool for policing dates back at least to the 19th century. Contemporary geospatial technology allows the use of increasingly large amounts of location-based data to create actionable intelligence that law enforcement agencies can use to respond to and anticipate criminal activity.

2015 shootings in Chicago

Geography in general and geospatial technology in particular have a long historical relationship with military activity. Geospatial intelligence is an indispensable part of modern warfare.

The National Geospatial Intelligence Agency

Geographic Information Science

As with the term geography, the term geographic information science (GIScience or GI Science) has a variety of different uses. Indeed, GIScience is often simply a framing of GIS training in a way that makes it seem more sophisiticated than simply learning which buttons to push in ArcGIG Pro. However, numerous authors have argued that there is a science to both the foundations and application of GIS that make it worthy of academic study.


Science is a political term (Douthat 2020) that has a wide variety of meanings in common usage. Indeed, science is often elevated in common discourse to the status of a secular religion (Farias et al 2013). However, for the purposes of defining GIScience, we will focus on two definitions of the term science (Merriam-Webster 2020):

A fundamental concept in these definitions is general truths, which are applicable in multiple times and places. This is in contrast to specific truths which are only applicable to a one particular time and place. An example of a specific truth would be the number of influenza deaths so far in this year's flu season, while a general truth would be that influenza is caused by infection by specific types of viruses.

Scientific research considers the relationship between both general and specific knowledge.

These two definitions of science lead to three definitions of GIScience:

GIScience as the Body of General Knowledge About GIS

Longley et al. (2009, 2) define geographic information science as:

"The general knowledge and important discoveries that have made geographic information systems possible"

Geographic information systems as a technology focuses on the application of knowledge to answer questions about specific situations and locations (Merriam-Webster 2020).

In contrast, geographic information science represents the body of knowledge about GIS that can be applied in a variety of different specific situations.

Specific (GIS) General (GIScience)
Where is the nearest sushi restaurant? What data models can be used to represent business in GIS?
What is the median assessed value of homes in my neighborhood? What are the best system architectures to use for delivering web maps (like property maps) to large public audiences?
Why are breast cancer rates so high on Long Island? How can we synthesize disease incidence location data and environmental data to assess potential causes of disease?
Where are the areas with the highest rates of assault in Chicago? What algorithms are best suited to analysis of different types of crime data?

GIScience as the Production of General Knowledge About GIS

Beyond being a simply a collection of knowledge from past discoveries, science is also a process for producing new knowledge, notably through the scientific method.

From that conception of science, one of the two definitions of GIScience proposed by Goodchild (1992) is:

The exploration of scientific questions about GIS that are "generic, rather than specific to particular fields of application and particular contexts"

Activities in this domain include:

GIScience as the Application of GIS in Scientific Inquiry

Goodchild (1992) also proposed another definition of GIScience:

The use of geographic information systems (GIS) to provide "insight, explanation, and understanding" in "supporting those sciences for which geography is a significant key"

This definition encompasses GIScience as the application of GIS in scientific research, and in the development of GIS technology that can be used in scientific research. Examples of this type of GIScience include:

La Ciudad Blanca
Breast cancer on Long Island (National Cancer Institute, 2014)

Geospatial Data Science

Beyond GIS as a technology, and GIScience as the scientific study and use of GIS, there is an emerging area of geospatial data science.

Data Science

Data science is "the science of extracting meaningful information from data." Data science as a distinct paradigm and profession emerged in the early 2000s with the advent of Web 2.0, the subsequent deluge of big data, and the emergence of new techniques for extracting useful information from those massive data sets in ways that could enable data-driven decision making (Anselin 2020).

Goodchild (2020) references data science as a "Fourth Paradigm" of data-driven science (Hey 2009). While the traditional scientific method uses data to test hypotheses for validity as predictive theories, data science uses analytical techniques like artificial intelligence and machine learning to find patterns in data that are useful for making effective predictions. This results in the dictum, Let the data speak for itself.

The traditional scientific method vs. data science

While the line between big and non-big data is fuzzy and ever-changing, the distinguishing characteristics are velocity, volume, variety and veracity. Big data comes in quickly, there is alot of it, it comes in a lot of different forms, and it isn't always rigorously trustworthy.

For example:

Big Data (IBM)

Geospatial Data Science as Data Science

Geospatial data science is "a subset of data science that takes into account the special characteristics of spatial data in analytical methods and software tools" (Anselin 2020).

Geospatial data science is also referred to as spatial data science or geographic data science. The boundary between geographic information science and geospatial data science is not clear or universally defined, although there are two fuzzy delineators:

Regardless of the nomenclature, the focus in data science is on the data, with geospatial data science adding an additional focus on the importance of the where dimension of geospatial data that has traditionally been overlooked in data science.

Some examples of geospatial data science provided by Anselin (2020):

Geospatial data science

Jobs in GIS, GIScience, and Geospatial Data Science

This hierarchy of GIS, GIScience, and geospatial data science is also reflected in the types of jobs that geographic information professionals can have during their careers.

GIS Technician / Field Technician: Technicians capture geospatial data in the field and/or perform data entry and cleaning. A bachelors degree is usually required. The job often involves outdoor work with lots of travel and modest pay.

GIS Analyst / Specialist: This is the most common entry-level and early-career GIS job. Analysts perform entry, maintenance, visualization, and publication of geospatial data and databases. This job is usually performed in a cubicle.

Support Analyst / Engineer: GIS consulting firms and software companies like ESRI hire people to provide technical support to existing customers and help both existing and prospective customers more effectively use (and buy) the company's software offerings. Requires good people skills (sales) as well as a strong, practical, high-level understanding of the company's products.

GIS Developer: These are programming jobs in developing software with a geospatial component, usually involving web sites and/or mobile devices. These jobs requires strong programming skills and experience.

GIS Director / Coordinator / Manager: People who start as GIS analysts commonly move into these management jobs as their careers progress in a private company or government agency. Different positions have different combinations of technical consulting, outreach, sales, and management of subordinates.

Geospatial Data Scientist / Analyst / Specialist: These positions involve the analysis of both geospatial and non-geospatial data. Strong quantitative skills are essential, including programming.

Transit Data Analyst: Transit agencies hire analysts to maintain operational data and communicate analysis of that data. In addition to GIS skills, the ability to use and maintain specialized transit data software will also be needed.

Urban Planner: Urban planners commonly use GIS to provide analysis and visualization during the planning process. Although geography and urban planning often have a significant overlap in what they cover, urban planning careers usually require a professional master's of urban planning degree from an urban planning department.