In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Geographic Information Science

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Interoperability and Standardization
  • Scale
  • Representation and Ontology
  • Geographic Visualization
  • Spatial Analysis and Modeling in GIS
  • GIS and Society
  • GIscience 2.0/Geospatial Web

Geography Geographic Information Science
Nadine Schuurman, Jonathan Cinnamon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 March 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0023


Geographic information systems (GIS) are the collection of software, hardware, outputs, personnel, and practices that together facilitate the analysis and mapping of geographic entities and phenomena. The field of geographic information science (GIScience) broadly explores the theory and concepts underpinning GIS and related geospatial technologies such as remote sensing and the Global Positioning System (GPS). The technological history of GIS began in the 1960s with the first rudimentary systems developed primarily for storing land information and for basic visualized outputs of geographic entities. As the technology progressed and permeated throughout the private sector, government, and academia—especially during the latter half of the 1980s and early 1990s—a growing cadre of scholars began to examine theoretical, conceptual, and intellectual questions related to the technology, in the process creating a new science of geographic information. Michael Goodchild, a geography professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, made the first description of this area of inquiry during the 1990 Spatial Data Handling conference. Goodchild subsequently published what became an agenda-setting paper in 1992 (Goodchild 1992, cited under General Overviews) outlining a justification for this focus, which was both influential and widely accepted. GIScience draws on numerous knowledge domains, including computer science, visualization, information technology, artificial intelligence, and cognitive science to create a theoretical basis for GIS. As a relatively new field of intellectual inquiry, GIScience has developed a body of knowledge with remarkable breadth and depth. GIScientists explore diverse issues including spatial data acquisition and quality, representation and visualization; the development of database and operational standards; scale, spatial analysis/statistics, and geocomputation; and the relationship between GIS technology and society. The topic areas chosen for this article largely reflect the consensus of the GIScience academy regarding the core themes of inquiry in this field, as discussed in the General Overviews section. Further, references to current trajectories and future directions for GIScience are scattered throughout this article.

General Overviews

Goodchild 1992 set the agenda for an emerging interest in the science of geographic information. In this seminal paper, the author argues that attention should focus on the science behind GIS technology and the need to develop GIScience as an intellectual and scientific endeavor. This work describes the aspects of GIS that are “scientific,” from issues of spatial data including its collection, modeling, theories, and algorithms to spatial analysis, statistics, and analytics and managerial and ethical issues. After Goodchild’s declaration, the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science (UCGIS) was established in 1995 as a coalition of US universities, national laboratories, and learned societies. The University Consortium for Geographic Information Science 1996 documents the ten key research priorities (later to be reframed as “challenges”) for GIScience; namely, spatial data acquisition and integration, distributed computing, geographic representation, cognition, interoperability, scale, spatial analysis in GIS, spatial data infrastructures, uncertainty, and GIS and society. The 2005 UCGIS-commissioned edited book, McMaster and Usery 2005, updated and expanded on the GIScience research agenda by adding four new themes that reflected emerging priorities: geographic visualization, ontological foundations for GIScience, remotely acquired data and information, and geospatial data mining and knowledge discovery. In the years since the emergence of GIScience and the setting of its research priorities, several other key works have been written to overview the past, current state, and future of GIScience. Goodchild 1999 provides an end-of-the-millennium look at the progress of GIScience thus far—including a discussion of its acceptance, uptake, and future directions. The opening chapter in Mark 2003 provides a look at the key issues, not the least of which is the need to differentiate GIScience from scientific research that uses GIS (i.e., applied GIS), and the potential for the emergence of GIScience as a distinct discipline. The author gives an overview of the different themes proposed by UCGIS and others and provides some new ones of his own. The relationship between GISystems and GIScience—especially the need for one to inform the other—is covered in an organized manner in Gold 2006. In the first of a series of three related articles that look perhaps to the future of GIScience, Elwood 2009 examines the geospatial web (GeoWeb) and the emerging questions it poses for GIScience. Fittingly, an article reflecting on twenty years of progress in GIScience is Goodchild 2010. This article reviews the history of its emergence, its successes, and its new challenges brought on by ubiquitous positioning, citizen engagement in spatial data collection and mapping, and multidimensional GIS.

  • Elwood, Sarah. “Geographic Information Science: New Geovisualization Technologies—Emerging Questions and Linkages with GIScience Research.” Progress in Human Geography 33.2 (2009): 256–263.

    DOI: 10.1177/0309132508094076

    A broad overview of the nascent geospatial web (GeoWeb). The review article documents its origins, the geovisualization potentials, its social and political effects, and relation to themes explored in GIScience. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Gold, Christopher M. “What Is GIS and What Is Not?” Transactions in GIS 10.4 (2006): 505–519.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9671.2006.01009.x

    A refreshing review of the position of GISystems and GIScience as well as their relation to each other and to other allied disciplines from the author’s perspective. Examples are provided of techniques and concepts developed outside of GISystems/GIScience that are applicable to the field, illustrating the author’s point of blurred boundaries. Available online by subscription.

  • Goodchild, Michael F. “Geographical Information Science.” International Journal of Geographical Information Systems 6.1 (1992): 31–45.

    DOI: 10.1080/02693799208901893

    This foundational paper draws attention to the need to recognize and explore the role of the underlying science of GIS and lays the groundwork for the area of inquiry now known as geographic information science (GIScience). Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Goodchild, Michael F. “Future Directions in Geographic Information Science.” Annals of GIS 5.1 (1999): 1–8.

    DOI: 10.1080/10824009909480507

    Goodchild provides a retrospective take on GIScience since his coining of the term several years prior and a description of the key successes and challenges existing in each of the core research areas. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Goodchild, Michael F. “Twenty Years of Progress: GIScience in 2010.” Journal of Spatial Information Science 1 (2010): 3–20.

    A discussion of the accomplishments of GIScience from 1990 until 2010 from the author’s perspective and the perspectives of other key figures. In addition, the author outlines future research trends for the field including GIS education and citizen engagement with geospatial technologies.

  • Mark, David. M. “Geographic Information Science: Defining the Field.” In Foundations of Geographic Information Science. Edited by Matt Duckham, Michael F. Goodchild, and Michael Worboys, 3–18. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2003.

    Another article that lays out the scope of GIScience. An extensive definition is provided. Also overviews the major projects responsible for advancing the field, including the creation of the University Consortium for GIScience and Project Varenius and the similarities and differences in their stated research priorities.

  • McMaster, Robert Brainerd, and E. Lynn Usery, eds. A Research Agenda for Geographic Information Science. Boca Raton, FL: CRC, 2005.

    This edited collection updates and expands on the original research agenda put forth by the UCGIS. Each chapter in this book is devoted to one of the original research priorities plus four new priorities reflecting the progress and emerging direction of the field.

  • University Consortium for Geographic Information Science. “Research Priorities for Geographic Information Science.” Cartography and Geographic Information Science 23.3 (1996): 115–127.

    DOI: 10.1559/152304096782438855

    This article summarizes a meeting held by the newly formed UCGIS to set out research priorities for an emerging GIScience in order to situate GIScience as an organized, recognized, and respected scientific discipline. Highlighting the fundamental issues raised by the technology was the intention, rather than focusing on technologies themselves. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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