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Computer Mapping (70s), Spatial Database Management (80s) and Map Analysis/Modeling (90s). These efforts established the underlying concepts, structures and tools supporting modern geotechnology. What is radically different today is the broad adoption of GIS and its new map forms.
In the early years, GIS was considered the domain of a relatively few cloistered techno-geeks “down the hall and to the right.” Today, it is on everyone’s desk, PDA and even cell phone. In just three decades it has evolved from an emerging science to a fabric of society that depends on its products from getting driving directions to sharing interactive maps of the family vacation.
4D GIS (XYZ and time) is the next major frontier. Currently, time is handled as a series of stored map layers that can be animated to view changes on the landscape. Add predictive modeling to the mix and proposed management actions (e.g., timber harvesting and subsequent vegetation growth) can be introduced to look into the future. Tomorrow’s data structures will accommodate time as a stored dimension and completely change the conventional mapping paradigm.
The technical hurdles surrounding GIS have been aggressively tackled over the past four decades. Comprehensive spatial databases are taking form, GIS applications are accelerating and even office automation packages are including a “mapping button.” So what is the most pressing issue confronting GIS in the next millennium?
Calvin, of the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, puts it in perspective: “Why waste time learning, when ignorance is instantaneous?” Why should time be wasted in GIS training and education? It’s just a tool, isn’t it? The users can figure it out for themselves. They quickly grasped the operational concepts of the toaster and indoor plumbing. We have been mapping for thousands of years and it is second nature. GIS technology just automated the process and made it easier.
Admittedly, this is a bit of an overstatement, but it does set the stage for GIS’s largest hurdle— educating the masses of potential users on what GIS is (and isn’t) and developing spatial reasoning skills. In many respects, GIS technology is not mapping as usual. The rights, privileges and responsibilities of interacting with mapped variables are much more demanding than interactions with traditional maps and spatial records.
At least as much attention (and ultimately, direct investment) should go into geospatial application development and training as is given to hardware, software and database development. Like the automobile and indoor plumbing, GIS won’t be an important technology until it becomes second nature for both accessing mapped data and translating it into information for decisions. Much more attention needs to be focused beyond mapping to that of spatial reasoning, the “softer,” less traditional side of geotechnology.
GIS’s development has been more evolutionary, than revolutionary. It responds to contemporary needs as much as it responds to technical breakthroughs. Planning and management have always required information as the cornerstone. Early information systems relied on physical storage of data and manual processing. With the advent of the computer, most of these data and procedures have been automated. As a result, the focus of GIS has expanded from descriptive inventories to entirely new applications involving prescriptive analysis. In this transition, map analysis has become more quantitative. This wealth of new processing capabilities provides an opportunity to address complex spatial issues in entirely new ways.
It is clear that GIS technology has greatly changed our perspective of a map. It has moved mapping from a historical role of provider of input, to an active and vital ingredient in the “thruput” process of decision-making. Today’s professional is challenged to understand this new environment and formulate innovative applications that meet the complexity and accelerating needs of the twenty-first century.