Back close

The Evolution of Geographic Information Systems in the 21st Century: An Incredible Journey

January 25, 2023 - 1:31
The Evolution of Geographic Information Systems in the 21st Century: An Incredible Journey

Dr. SumithSatheendran S.
Department of Chemistry, Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Amritapuri 690525, Kerala, India

Geographic Information System (GIS) has transformed from a theory to a science over the past fifty years. The remarkable evolution of GIS from a fundamental tool to the most advanced, effective platform for understanding and organizing our environment has passed through several key turning points. In the 1960s, when computers and the earliest ideas of computational and quantitative geography gained popularity, the area of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) was established. A critical academic study was conducted early on in the development of the GIS discipline.Later, under the direction of Michael Goodchild, the National Centre for Geographic Information and Analysis institutionalized research on fundamental geographic information science themes like spatial analysis and visualization. The foundation for GIS was created by these initiatives, which sparked a revolution in quantitative methods in the study of geography. In 1963, the first computerized Geographical Information System was created as a result of Roger Tomlinson’s creative initiative to launch, plan, and build the Canada Geographic Information System. The governing body of Canada had contracted to develop a practical inventory of the country’s natural resources. He thought about using computers to compile information on the natural resources of all the provinces. Canada’s national land-use management programme was made possible by Tomlinson’s idea for automated computing, which can store and interpret massive volumes of data. Furthermore, he gave GIS a name [1].

SYMAP, one of the earliest computer mapping programmes, was developed by Howard Fisher in 1964 while he was a student at North-western University. The Harvard Laboratory for Computer Graphics was established by him in 1965. The Laboratory created some of the first computer tools for creating maps, and over time it developed into a hub for geographic analysis and visualisation research. A skilled group of computer scientists, planners, geographers, and others from many professions developed many of the original ideas for GIS and its applications at the Lab. Jack Dangermond, a member of the Harvard Lab, and his wife Laura established the Environmental Systems Research Institute (Esri) in 1969.To aid in the decision-making of land use planners and land resource managers, the consulting firm used computer mapping and spatial analysis. Early work by the company showed how useful GIS is for solving issues. Future developments by Esri led to the majority of the spatial analysis and mapping methods used in GIS today.The company’s software tools and workflows, which are now commonplace for GIS, attracted further attention as a result of these outcomes.With the advancement of computers, Esri made software tool improvements. The organization was able to innovate and create dependable GIS tools and methods that could be utilized in a variety of situations by working on projects that addressed real challenges.The academic world recognized Esri’s work as an innovative spatial study and planning approach. Esri responded to the need for more effective project analysis by developing Arc/INFO, the first commercial GIS software. The technology’s introduction in 1981 marked the start of Esri’s transformation into a software business [2].

People can create unique digital map layers with the help of GIS to help in solving practical difficulties. An overlapping, continuous, and interoperable GIS database of the world that covers almost all topics is a goal motivated by the growth of GIS as a platform for data exchange and collaboration. This dream is currently rapidly materialising. In order to tell stories and highlight trends, patterns, clusters and relationships in everything, millions of enterprises today share their work and produce billions of maps every day.

What Was the Origin of GIS?

The way we perceive location has changed as a result of the mapping. Maps are crucial tools for making decisions. Itmakes our travel more accessible. They are also getting increasingly embedded into our everyday lives. Where, though, did it all start? The development of GIS has benefited from a variety of technologies. It was created using digital mapping, ground, air, and space-based remote sensing, databases, computer- visualization and aided design, cartography, geodesy, geography, math, statistics and computer science. The majority of contemporary technologies also integrate data sciences and artificial intelligence.

Cholera Clusters from Paper Mapping Analysis

The year 1854 marked the start of GIS’s whole history. London, a city in England experienced a cholera outbreak. Dr. John Snow, a doctor and a physician from Great Britain started keeping track of the locations of the outbreaks and the roads, fences, and water lines. He used mapping to show that water pumps were the focal point of cholera outbreaks [3]. Many individuals believed that the illness was spreading through the air. On the other hand, this paper map demonstrated how cholera propagated via water [4].

Dr. John Snow (Image credit: National Library of Medicine)

The cholera map created by John Snow was a crucial advancement that connected geography and public health safety [5]. It marked the earliest spatial analysis techniques and an entire branch of epidemiology which investigated how diseases spread.He is still regarded as the founder of epidemiology.John Snow’s work served as an example of how GIS might be used as a tool for problem-solving. He discovered something that could have saved his life by adding geographic layers to a paper map is considered to be alife-saving discovery [6].

The first cholera map was created by John Snow, who used spatial analysis on paper maps to stop the outbreak in London, England.
(Image credit: National Geographic Society)

One thing you have to consider when contrasting the technologically adept John Snow of today with the John Snow of the past is how GIS came to be in its present form.If John Snow were still alive today, a database would have those layers [7]. He had the option of turning them on and off to see any potential sources of contamination. However, he could have been able to solve London’s issue using spatial statistics. The development of GIS is fascinating. Its growth has gone through various stages. Influential individuals and technological advancements have an impact on it [8].

Before 1960:Darkest Era of GIS

During this time there were no new developments have been made. Each and every map was created using sieve mapping or on paper. For GIS to become popular, the technology wasn’t available.Sieve mapping uses transparent layers on light tables to identify overlap locations. Area calculations were challenging, data were frequently imprecise and inaccurate, and distance measurements took a long time. Given all the drawbacks associated with paper maps, it was not surprising that spatial users and cartographers desired to study computational alternatives for processing spatial data.

1960 to 75:Geographical Information System Innovation

Genuine GIS innovation occurred from the early 1960s to the 1980s.As technology advanced, things started to fall together like puzzle pieces: line printers were used to print map representations. Using mainframe computers for data storage has advanced and maintains track of coordinates as data enters, eventually.These pioneering computer industry advancements facilitated the subsequent growth of GIS [9]. But a great mind with the ability to put the jigsaw pieces together was what GIS really needed.

Step Forward Roger Tomlinson – The Father of GIS

The Canadian Geographic System was developed under Roger Tomlinson’s initiative, planning, and leadership in the 1960s while he served as a government official in Canada (CGIS). It was a crucial period in the development of Geographical Information Systemsas many people believe that Geographic Information Systems are built upon CGIS.The layer approach system that CGIS used for managing maps made it distinct.

Dr. Roger Tomlinson (Image credit: MundoGEO)

Considering how much land Canada owns, a Canadian Land Inventory (CLI) proposal grew up in 1964. However, it failed to begin operating at its full potential until 1971. The CLI investigated climate, drainage, and soil factors to determine the suitability of the land for different agricultural kinds and forested areas. It immediately understood that precise and pertinent data were necessary for making decisions about the land. As of now, CGIS has numerous modifications and enhancements over time to keep abreast of technology [10].

“I am very positive about the future of GIS. It is the right technology at right time”.
Dr. Riger Tomlison (1933-2013)

Around the World: GIS Innovation

The US Census Bureau was a pioneer in implementing several of the core GIS concepts. The US Census Bureau’s pioneering work enabled the Census of 1970 to be electronically input utilizing GBF-DIME as the data format (Geographic Base File – Dual Independent Map Encoding). Ordnance Survey of the United Kingdom got to work as part of their usual topographic map creation. Even today, the Ordnance Survey continues to generate an extensive range of GIS data sets, which include each and every home, fence, and stream network in each region of Great Britain. For the moment, GIS development was still in its infancy.It remained in its early stages, with just a few national organizations beginning to develop it globally [11].

1975 to 90: GIS Software Commercialization

Work done by the Harvard Laboratory for Graphics on computers was impacted as more governments realized the advantages of electronic mapping. ODYSSEY GIS, the initial vector GIS was developed in the middle of the 1970’s using computer graphics from Harvard Laboratory. The ODYSSEY GIS technological foundation served as the foundation for Esri’s Arc/INFO, and this initiative helped to pave the path for the next stage of GIS development—the commercialization of software.As technology advanced in the late 1970s, the computer system’s memory and graphics capabilities grew.By the late 1980s, there were more GIS software businesses than ever before in this time of history.Esri, currently the largest GIS software provider in the world, was one of these Geoinformatics software vendors. Esri introduced the Arc-INFO minicomputer programme in 1982. Next, PC Arc-INFO for the Intel microcomputer was made available in 1986. Since its foundation, Esri has made essential contributions to the advancement of GIS software, making it the leading expert in this area globally. Some of the initial conferences and published studies helped to accelerate the growth of GIS during this time. In 1975, the UK had the first GIS conference [12]. There aren’t many professors in attendance. Initially, Esri meeting was held in 1981 with 18 guests.Consulting firms for GIS started to emerge. Roger Tomlinson coined the term “Geographic Information System” in his 1968 book “A Geographic Information System for Regional Planning.” That was a particularly lonesome time to use GIS.

1990 to 2010: MoreUsers

GIS technology is starting to gain traction among users in various contexts. Globally, businesses, governments, and educational institutions are starting to embrace digital mapping and analysis.The circumstances were favourable for the widespread adoption of GIS in society: more access to data, faster, more powerful, and more reasonably priced computers, new satellite launches, and the use of the field of remote sensing.The heyday of GIS really began to take momentum between 1990 and 2010. Technology has advanced faster than the average user’s capabilities, though. The GIS technology was not fully utilised by its users. Utilizing GIS software was resisted by businesses and a lack of topographical data prevented countries from developing. Decision-makers were beginning to understand the value of spatial analysis gradually [13]. GIS began to be introduced in schools and businesses gradually. Both vector and raster data were manageable by the software. GIS systems will be able to use the data gathered from space as there are more satellites in orbit.Excellent, cutting-edge products like Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) and Vehicle Navigation Systems have replicated the Global Position System (GPS) strategies. The doors to GNSS and GIS developments began to open. We now arrive at the open-source boom, the next chapter in the story of GIS [14].

2010 to Now: Open Source Has Risen

Today’s mainstream is embracing open source. Open-source GIS software is quickly taking over the market. More than ever, QGIS is under a brighter spotlight. Commercial GIS software, however, will always have a role in the market. Software providers like Esri can solve almost any spatial challenge that exists today.Now these days, it is getting easier to find GIS data.Open datasets, satellite imageries of various resolutions, and include LiDAR data are all accessible for free download.Spatial data is stored in abundance in online GIS databases like ArcGIS and QGIS Online [15].It all comes down to quality control and customizing it to meet your needs and requirements.

Open Source Geospatial Foundation (Image credit: OSGeo)

With the passage of time, the development of GIS led to the creation of a tool for saving data on a computer and altering terrestrial data based on maps. Some of the most significant choices our planet is making right now are a result of this multi-billion dollar industry.We are continuing the legacy of the GIS forefathers every day. On the shoulders of mighty men, we stand. We are influencing the direction of GIS. The development of GIS will be shaped by us,because GIS is a tool that may assist in making informed decisions, businesses, organizations, and governments all use it.Over time, GIS has developed into much more than a simple mapping system. It generally has followed the important occasions influencing its course as follows: Information Management, Geography, Geodesign and Science of where.In 2016, the focus shifted to incorporating GIS with science.Even if geodesign, geography, and information management are still essential GIS principles. In GIS, we simply conduct daily operations related to the “science of where.” It involves pushing technological frontiers into the realm of science and creating new opportunities.Here is the scenario as it stands in terms of 2022 and afterward. Global connectivity is instantaneous thanks to the Internet of Things (IoT). It concerns technological development and connections between us and mother earth. But the common thread connecting everything is geography.


  1. Arribas-Bel, D., Graaff, T. D., & Rey, S. J. , 2017, Looking at John Snow’s Cholera map from the twenty first century: A practical primer on reproducibility and open science. In Regional Research Frontiers-Vol. 2 (pp. 283-306). Springer, Cham.Weblink
  2. Buehrer, D. , 1990, “A Second Chance on Earth”: The Postmodern and the Post-Apocalyptic in García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction32(1), 15-26.Weblink
  3. Cicak, T., & Tynan, N., 2015, Mapping London’s water companies and cholera deaths. The London Journal40(1), 21-32.Weblink
  4. Jones, A. H., 1997, Literature and medicine: García Márquez’Love in the time of cholera. The Lancet350(9085), 1169-1172.Weblink
  5. Jones, A. H., 1997, Literature and medicine: García Márquez’Love in the time of cholera. The Lancet350(9085), 1169-1172.Weblink
  6. Koch, T., &Denike, K., 2009, Crediting his critics’ concerns: Remaking John Snow’s map of Broad Street cholera, 1854. Social science & medicine69(8), 1246-1251.Weblink
  7. McLeod, K. S., 2000, Our sense of Snow: the myth of John Snow in medical geography. Social science & medicine50(7-8), 923-935. Weblink
  8. Morens, D. M., 2004, Cholera, Chloroform, and the Science of Medicine: A Life of John Snow. Weblink
  9. Newsom, S. W. B., 2006, Pioneers in infection control: John Snow, Henry Whitehead, the Broad Street pump, and the beginnings of geographical epidemiology. Journal of Hospital Infection64(3), 210-216.Weblink
  10. Gupta, R. D., Agrawal, S., & Tripathi, A. K., 2022, NSDI Based Innovative Approach for Development of Open Source SDI for Health Sector: A Way Forward. In Geospatial Data Science in Healthcare for Society 5.0, 273-303, Springer, Singapore. Weblink
  11. Löwe, P., Nartišs, M., McKenna, J., &Emde, A., 2022, The new emerging DOI biotope within and around the Open Source Geospatial Foundation (OSGeo) (No. EGU22-5985). Copernicus Meetings.Weblink
  12. Mangiameli, M., Mussumeci, G., Muscato, G., Melita, D., & Stefania, C. R. M. , 2022, Preface of the “Geomatics Approaches for Environmental Surveying and Modelling”. In AIP Conference Proceedings, 2425(1), 280001). AIP Publishing LLC.Weblink
  13. Mohan, S., &Giridhar, M. V. S. S., 2022, A brief review of recent developments in the integration of deep learning with GIS. Geomatics and Environmental Engineering16(2). Weblink
  14. Obermeyer, N. J., 1998, The evolution of public participation GIS. Cartography and Geographic Information Systems25(2), 65-66.Weblink
  15. Steiniger, S., & Bocher, E., 2009, An overview on current free and open source desktop GIS developments. International Journal of Geographical Information Science23(10), 1345-1370.Weblink
Admissions Apply Now