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Geographic Information Systems



Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are an area of IT application with a significantly different history from forms of information system GIS deals with the storage, representation and processing of spatial data. Many forms of decision making are spatial in nature and disciplines such as cartography have sought to represent spatial relationships. In 1854 John Snow, an English doctor, attempted to get a better understanding of the problem. He used a map of London to plot the locations of the homes of Cholera fatalities. He also marked the location of water pumps on the map. Using this representation it became clear that those with cholera were clustered around a particular pump. This supported the belief that the disease was spread by contaminated water. Dr Snow asked for that pump to be closed and the epidemic subsided. This example indicates how locations plotted on a map could provide information that wasn't obvious from an analysis of the non-spatial characteristics of the patients, e.g., their ages, their diet, etc.

John Snow Map

Map of cholera patients produced by John Snow 1854

Spatial applications involve much larger datasets and more complex processing than traditional business data-processing. Consequently, the development of sophisticated GIS applications required the introduction of computer systems that had the necessary speed and storage capacity to process queries on the larger quantities of data involved. In the early years of GIS application, the power required could only be provided by expensive mainframe computers, which could not be easily used in a flexible way by end users. While personal computers became useful for many applications in the 1980s, GIS only became feasible on this platform a decade later. So the development of GIS from data-processing to decision support has lagged developments in other areas of IS. GIS applications are also characterised by the need for large amounts of generic data about the geography of the region.

Currently GIS is becoming increasingly integrated with other forms of IS. Many areas of application of GIS, such as transport and location planning, have long been of interest to researchers in OR/MS. Other areas of interest to CMSS members, such as MCDM are now of increasing importance to GIS researchers.