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Major Innovations of GIS

There are four major innovations in Geographic Information System history. Most took place in the 1960’s. In the mid-1960’s, two separate countries had the initiation to come up with better ways to analyze and show geographical data and to make it easier through computer technology. The Canada Geographic Information System was developed for the Canada Land Inventory to analyze data and statistics for land survey and land management plans. Whereas, the Harvard Lab for Computer Graphics was developing a general purpose mapping package for landscape architects, urban and regional planners, and resource managers. The U.S. Census Bureau also revolutionized GIS with the development of the geographic base file-dual independent map encoding files (GBF-DIME). Then the Environmental Science Research Institute (ESRI) caught the contagious GIS bug and combined the technologies of the microcomputer and the new GIS software in 1981. This period of contagion led to the development of ARC/INFO, which set the path for ArcView, a widely used GIS software today.

The Canada Geographic Information System (CGIS) developed one of the first GIS systems that could analyze data from the Canada Land Inventory and statistics for land management plans. This was a major historical significance, for it proved to the world that a computer could analyze basic and complex data. It provided a means for the CLI to put seven different map layers onto one map, on top of each other, to show relations between sets of data. To do this, a scanner had to be developed to aid in data mapping. By the mid-1970’s the CGIS database was completed and was able to produce "statistical summaries and maps of land areas with various combinations of land uses."

A graduate student in the Harvard University School of Design created the Harvard Lab for Computer Graphics. It was created to help landscape architects, urban and regional planners, and resource managers with mapping. It created three automated mapping applications, SYMAP, SYNVU, and CRID. SYMAP was a general-purpose synagraphic mapping package. It was fairly easy to use and was the first to show the ability of computers to make maps. The SYMVU was an upgrade from SYMAP and showed the maps in 3D and was the first to display spatial data from a computer. GRID set the stage for raster GIS. GRID used the same output techniques as SYMAP. Was mainly developed to show map overlay, where the computer puts different layers of data on top of one another to show data relations.

The U.S. Census Bureau developed Geographic Base File, Dual Independent Map Encoding (GBF-DIME). This was a major historical significance and contribution because it grew into TIGER files in 1990, which was very critical to the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI). This GBF-DIME comprised of coding of the topology of street segments with numbered nodes at each end and numbered areas on each side. DIME itself was developed to overcome problems using map topology. It all laid the groundwork for choropleth mapping of census results. It went from invention to publication in a phenomenal 3-4 months.

Later came ESRI’s (Environmental Science Research Institute) contribution toward GIS. In the coordination phase, ESRI used ideas from the Harvard Lab for Computer Graphics and CGIS to create ARC/INFO. This made ESRI the dominant GIS company in the decade of the 90’s. They combined CGIS with a relational database, INFO, with specialized software to handle objects stored as arcs, ARC. ARC/INFO was the first GIS to use a super mini-computer, which, in turn, made it possible for it to be supported on an affordable platform. ARC/INFO set the path for ArcView which, is the GIS program mostly used today.

These four cases show the importance of GIS history through each contribution. They built on and used each other’s innovations. The 60’s set the stage for GIS, while the 90’s let it blossom into what it is today. They show what can be done with an idea and how time and initiation can make the idea real and improve with each step.