Geographic Information Systems: The Importance of Vision
By Brenda Cooper, 2000
There is a wallpaper map in my office. It’s about twelve years old. Country names have changed and boundaries shifted so much that almost all of my visitors exclaim first about the beauty of the map, and right on the heels of that, they recognize how out of date it is. Younger visitors say things like “Oh — Russia used to be THAT big!?!”
It’s amazing how well a map can talk. Especially today. Maps can be laid on top of maps on top of maps.
- Wolf range in Yellowstone can be laid on top of major local ranches, and that combination added to a map of rainfall and prey — and plans developed to keep wolves and ranchers separate.
- A rash of car thefts can be mapped onto the locations where the cars are recovered to identify patterns in the thieves behavior.
- Underground capital like water lines can be mapped onto city streets and overlaid with electrical power, fiber-optic cable, and in-ground phone wires to identify possible challenges before a street-cut is made.
- New instances of AIDS can be mapped onto locations of needle exchange programs to see if AIDS increases or decreases (or neither) geographically near these programs.
Already, the abundance and accuracy of Geographic (or spatial) data has changed our daily world. How many of us print a turn by turn map with directions before we go someplace new?
We are faced with a number of sociological, political, and environmental challenges. These are big problems where cause and effect are not always clear, and interrelationships are complex. For example, the economics of Brazil affects the health of rainforests, which then affects the health of the population and the availability of exotic medicines.
The Geographic Information Systems discipline will be a vital tool as we try to make choices today to affect the map of the future tomorrow.
A Geography Hero
The world of computers has “Bill”. Philanthropic, controversial, cutthroat, and ostentatiously rich.
GIS has “Jack” – President and founder of Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), which is to high-end GIS as Microsoft is to desktop software.
But ESRI, and Jack, are different. Jack has a dream — he wants the world to be a better place. And he means it. He backs it up with money and support for conservation GIS, by fighting to help freely available resources like the Geography Network flourish, by awarding students and teachers at the annual ESRI users conference.
I got to sit next to him on the last day of the 2000 Users conference. He has charisma, spark, and caring. At the same time, he’s like your next door neighbor when you were growing up. He tries to learn your name, he talks TO you.
The culture of his staff and many of the GIS professionals around the world are infected with the same enthusiasm. They want to change the world for the better.
Creating a positive and hopeful future will be easier with corporate partners. To see one socially responsible corporate model that makes money, look closely at ESRI, and at Jack Dangermond.
“ESRI isn’t about making money, although it’s definitely a financially sound company. It’s about improving our world and the use of our
resources through better information management.”