Geographic Information Systems in a Nutshell

By Nombuyiselo Murage, Moringa Core Student

In a world where apps like PokeMonGO, Google Maps and Uber exist, there are millions of people like you and me who don’t understand or appreciate GIS. 

You’re probably wondering  right now what in the world is GIS? 

The acronym, GIS stands for Geographic Information Systems; computer-based system that analyzes, stores, manipulates and visualizes geographic information on a map. It is used to interpret data from a location-based point of view in order to understand the relationships, patterns, and trends which enable us to draw meaning from that data. Again GIS, is at times used to refer to Geographic Information Science which is the scientific/academic discipline that studies the data structures and computational techniques to handle spatial data for the implementation of Geographic Information Systems. This area of study while largely an independent discipline, relates very closely with Geomatics, Geography, Computer Science and Information technology. Among its core interests, as defined by British Geography professor Michael Goodchild, are spatial analysis, visualization and representation.

One more thing before I completely lose you, Spatial refers to ‘that which relates to a space dimension’ ergo, spatial thinking refers to interacting with data from a location or space point of view. So simply put, GIS is when you connect data to geography and thus understand it as What Data Belongs Where!This is what we call spatial thinking.

Where it all started

Ahem! *Clears throat*

In 1854, there came a man by the name John Snow, actually a Dr. John Snow. He was neither the warden of the north nor a bastard son and he definitely knew something (see what I did there?). Rather, he was a man of science, a British physician in fact! 

At the time there was a major cholera outbreak that had hit the city of London, England. Dr. Snow began mapping points of outbreaks alongside property boundaries and water lines. When he made this overlay, he made a stunning and quite possibly life-saving discovery; that the cholera cases occurred along the water line. John Snow’s Cholera map was one of the first and most brilliant examples of using spatial thinking to solve a problem. And not only was this the very beginning of spatial analysis, it also marked the very start of a whole new field of study known as Spatial Epidemiology. 

This  period leading up-to the 1950’s, was largely characterized by hard copy paper maps which were at times drawn on transparent paper layers placed on light-tables to allow for easy identification of overlay areas.  As time went on, technological advancements such as development of computer graphics as well as advancements in data storage on mainframe computers, meant that maps could now be draw on a computer screen. This led to the entry of GIS computer packages which was the period of GIS commercialization where the idea of GIS was perpetuated by organizations for other big enterprises and government organizations (it was not yet adopted by the large masses).

The Rebirth. This was the period from the late 1990’s leading to the 2000’s, where widespread user adoption of GIS began. This was largely attributed to the widespread availability of Personal Computers (PC). Additionally, advancements in technology such as expansion to software solutions that handle both vector and raster data coupled with the recent availability of the global positioning system, (GPS) gave users access to more tools than ever before. This period really highlighted the importance of spatial analysis for decision-making.


The open source phenomenon. This is the period from 2010 moving forward. The most distinct characterization of this period is the open source movement which was made possible by increased processor capacity, advancements in graphics and mainstreaming of cloud architectures that allowed for huge amounts of GIS data to be stored online. This saw a major shift from enterprise-level companies producing GIS software to GIS users making their own software in an open collaborative way.

There are still a lot of exciting opportunities coming up for new ideas and innovations including venturing into the virtual reality space such as the game PokeMonGO and other advancements in real-time GIS. It has made our lives simple and effective and we love it. Imagine a time with no Uber or Google Maps to help you to get to where you are going. Or logistics systems for managing shipping cargo all across the world.

What I can say Ladies and Gentlemen is that GIS is everywhere.“As long as we can find meaning in data patterns and interactions in terms of what relating to where, we will always have GIS with us.”


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