For some time now the GIS industry is showing it relevance in Ghana. A lot has embraced it and efforts are been made to incorporate it into the already existing areas like the security, politics, governance, health sector, energy sector, just to mention a few. However there is an unofficial debate about what GIS really is and how it should be handled. I have heard from professors, PhD holders, Masters, Graduates, and other people from various backgrounds including geography that GIS is a tool just like excel, SPSS, or any statistical tool and need not to be pursued as an academic or professional field. It is too bad for the beginning; this is not a promising approach to development and real problem solving. Such a perception will only prevent the industry to achieve and the country to benefit from its full potential. I deem it as responsibility to share my opinion on this matter.
What is GIS?
The Acronym GIS is alternatively used with two different meanings, “Geographic Information System” and “Geographic Information Science”. Geographic Information System refers to the software that allows us to store, analyze and visualize spatial data. The term Geographic Information Science refers to a scientific discipline that develops new techniques to store, analyze and visualize spatial data. To avoid confusion, this is also referred to as GIscience. So far, we can see that Geographic information system (GIS) is a product of Geographic information science. No one can fully learn and apply Geographic information system without understanding the principles of Geographic information science (GIscience).The principle of GIscience is spatial thinking. Spatial thinking uses space to integrate and structure ideas. By understanding the meaning of space, we can use its properties (e.g., dimensionality, continuity, proximity, and separation). I would therefore highlight that GIS is an “approach “more than a “tool”.
There are many forms of thinking: verbal, logical, metaphorical, hypothetical, mathematical, statistical, and so forth. They can be distinguished in terms of their representational system (e.g., verbal, using linguistic symbols; mathematical, using mathematical symbols) or their reasoning system (e.g., logic, metaphor). In any domain of knowledge, multiple forms of thinking are used: science, for example, uses linguistic, hypothetical, mathematical, logical, and many other thinking processes. Spatial thinking is one form of thinking. The key to spatial thinking is a constructive amalgam of three elements: concepts of space, tools of representation, and processes of reasoning. It is the concept of space that makes spatial thinking a distinctive form of thinking.
The concept of Space: space is the boundless three-dimensional extent in which objects and events have relative position and direction.(Wikipedia) All things that the human eye can see has a location and all events or human interaction like business, social life, crime, recreation etc. also has locations. In geography, we believe that the locations of these things are not by accident and they form patterns which studied over time can help in preventing, duplicating, and predicting similar scene(s). The first law of geography says “everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things.” By understanding the meaning of space, we can use its properties (e.g., dimensionality, continuity, proximity, and separation). In any GIS analysis, the aim is to analyze the relationships among feature in space using the dimension of the properties of space. E.g. Distance, dimension, proximity, separation etc. In attempt to achieve this, the relationships among units of measurement (e.g., kilometers versus miles), different ways of calculating distance (e.g., miles, travel time, travel cost), the basis of coordinate systems (e.g., Cartesian versus polar coordinates), the nature of spaces (e.g., number of dimensions [two- versus three-dimensional all comes into play.
Tools of representation: these features in space basically forms three major outlook from locational view, these are points, lines, and polygon. Additionally, these lines, points and polygons are not of the same altitude or size or dimension. In GIS analysis, one attempts to represent these in their true state on paper. Secondly, the extent to which a feature becomes a point or polygon largely depends on the scale at which it is being represented. Thirdly, the earth is a spheroid in shape and as GIS expect tries to represent earth features with its locations on a flat surface like paper or our computer screens, the challenge of true representation stands in our faces, the task of projecting a portion of a spheroid with its features on flat surface without distorting its location need to be overcome. Fourth task is the graphic design skills needed to communicate findings to all regardless of their background. People see what they want to see and it becomes a responsibility of the GIS analyst to let people see what he (analyst) want them to see than what they (people) want to see. These among many others are what GIS need to go through in order to represent features of the earth on paper.
Reasoning: the real task of a GIS analyst requires the person to think. For example, in finding the shortest distance to a place, the analyst has to determine whether such a distance will be “as the Crow flies” (Euclidean measurement) or rectangular street grid (Mechatta) measurements. A GIS analyst most of the times need to imagine the results before finding means to achieve it. Everything is not in the software. Sometimes, formulas, outside geography needs to be borrowed and calculated for in order to complete a task. The Analyst is left to be initiative, innovative and reasoning in order to solve real life problems.
How is GIS an Approach than a Tool?
First of all, let me explain what I mean by a tool. A tool is any device, or software that is use to make work easier and faster. Examples of tools includes phones, computers, etc. Examples of software as a tool are Microsoft excel, SPSS, Microsoft Access, etc. these are used to organize, process, store and present work faster.
On the other hand, GIS does not just organize, process, store and present results. To perform such a task in the GIS field one needs to go through the Basics of GIscience to be successful. This is mainly due to the fact that GIS data requirement are more than what is normally captured. Every data needs to be groups into spatial and aspatial, if one brings a data into GIS software, it won’t work like it would if you put data into software’s like SPSS or excel. GIS will take you back to the filed again to collect the locations of all the data and link that information appropriately. If one does not understand the kind of projections needed for a particular kind of work, all the result will be wrong. Imagine if working with distances and then projecting your work in geographic coordinate system instead of projected coordinate system, all measurement will be in degrees instead of meters or km. this with many other reason which I have pointed out earlier in this article gives me the courage to say that GIS is not just a tool but an approach.
Until we all start looking at it in this direction, we will never have the best of the GIS. I conclude by saying I join the National council academies advice to all nations that “GIS is a VEHICLE FOR STRUCTURING PROBLEMS, FINDING ANSWERS, AND FOR EXPRESSING SOLUTIONS.”
Written by: Francis Andorful