Thursday, 20 December 2012

GIScience: Is it developing into a scientific discipline?


Geographic information (GI) is the information derived from facts about geographic features and phenomenon in the vicinity of the earth’s surface (M. Goodchild et al. 1998). Geographic information science (GIScience) has been defined as a basic research field whose aim is to define (or redefine) geographic concepts in the context of geographic information systems (Mark 2003). 

There have been three main motivations to the development of the field of GIScience (M. Goodchild et al. 1998), these are i) Scientific motivation which promotes the development of GIScience as a field to facilitate discovery of geographic truths in areas where they have not been found, to contribute to conceptualization, tools and methods with which geographic phenomena can be handled and to contribute to the general infrastructure of science given that different disciplines have the earth’s surface as their area of domain. ii) Technological motivation which has directly and indirectly influenced GIScience to take advantage of the development of technology in ensuring logical and consistent representation of GI. ii) Societal motivation to formalize human spatial thinking capabilities into geographic knowledge and to address the impact of GI technology in societal issues including democracy and privacy.

Development of the field

While writing a motivation to advocate for a centre to be funded by the National Science Foundation (Abler 1987) suggested potential areas of research for a Nation Centre for Geographic Information Analysis. Goodchild refined and expanded the topics and coined the term “geographic information science” (M. F. Goodchild 1992). With the formation of University Consortium for Geographic Information Science (UCGIS), more inclusive and formal definition and periodical research priorities were formed and (Mark 2003) reviewed different literature and came up with a comprehensive definition of the field.


Components of GIScience

In most of the discussions about the research topics to include in GIScience, three critical areas have emerged around which such topics evolve, these are; people, society and computer (technology). The critical questions have been: a) how do people conceptualize about their geographic environments? b) What societal factors influence (or hinder) the adoption of GI technology and how does such technology impact on the society? c) How can we take advantage to formalize conceptualization about geographic phenomena and improve functionality of GI tools for GI analysis and representation?(M. F. Goodchild 2010). With these questions, GIScience research has been formulated to answer scientific questions in different subtopics including: spatial cognition, user interface design, public participation GIS, spatial uncertainty, spatial analysis, privacy, spatial data infrastructure, algorithm and data modelling among others.

At the same time clear criteria have been formulated to draw the limits of GIScience research, these include ; that such research should be in areas of GI that have not yet been discovered; that the research should be generic and not limited to the context of enquiry ; that the nature of the research should be hard enough and should be recognized as such by scientists in other disciplines (M. F. Goodchild 2010).

Laws of GIScience

In the development of the discipline, a number of laws have emerged (or have become clearer), these include i) Tobler’s First Law of geography which has now found a home in GIScience with many applications including spatial autocorrelation, interpolation, resampling, contour mapping among others. ii) The principle of spatial heterogeneity which implies that due to the structural difference of locations, the results of any spatial analysis depends on the bounds under consideration. iii) Fractal principle which implies that geographic phenomena reveal additional information the closer one looks at it. iv) The principle of spatial uncertainty which acknowledges that geographic world is complex and every representation of (abstraction from) geographic phenomena contains an uncertainty (Anselin 1989) 


Impacts of GIScience discipline


GIScience has made significant inroads in the world of science through the variety of high impact publications that have been cited in different scientific disciplines. This has mainly been through the emergence and renaming of journals to publish scientific articles in the discipline of GIScience. Additionally high impact annual and periodical conferences have been organized where GIScience researchers get an opportunity to share their findings with scientists from other disciplines. Figure 1 shows the annual variation in number of articles in the field of GIScience as searched from Thompson Reuters Web of Knowledge. The different search terms used were “Geographical Information Science”, “Geographic Information Science” and “GIScience”
Figure 1: Articles in the field of GIScience as searched from Thompson Reuters Web of Knowledge

In figure 2, the annual variation (from 1992 to 2011) of the number of publications and citations of articles searched with the keywords “Geographic Information Science” on Microsoft academic search website are presented
Figure 2: Annual variations of publications and citations of GIScience related articles according to Microsoft Academic Research tool

The other evident impacts that have emerged from GIScience have been the formal institutional frameworks to coordinate and formalize national, regional and continental research and education in GIScience. Such efforts include UCGIS, AGILE and UNIGIS. In the same breadth a number of post graduate course are offered throughout the world in GIScience and related fields.

Finally, because of research in GIScience, GI and GI technology have become very significant in a number of areas of application including policy making and governance, medical research, disaster management, urban and regional planning, climate change prediction and mitigation, agriculture, forest management, mining and exploration among many other applications.



In the short period of the existence of GIScience as a field, it has made significant progress and continues to develop into a fully fledged scientific discipline. This progress has been made possible by the clarity in definition of the field and the domain of operation of the field. As a result, different laws or principles have emerged which continue informing decisions that have to do with geographic phenomena. Additional, there are now institutional frameworks that will further enhance the structural development of the discipline. Similarly the proliferation of scientific journals to document research findings has created a demand for GI knowledge that can only be satisfied by proper research in GIScience. This coupled with emerging study curricula in GIScience throughout the world and broad areas of application will forever cement the position of GIScience as a scientific discipline.

The presentation that was made on this topic is embedded herein:

The full paper can be found in the link below:



Abler, R.F., 1987. The National Science Foundation National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis. International journal of geographical information systems, 1(4), pp.303–326. Available at:
Anselin, L., 1989. What is special about spatial data?: alternative perspectives on spatial data analysis. In Spring 1989 Symposium on Spatial Statistics, Past, Present and Future, Department of Geography, Syracuse University. Santa Barbara, CA: National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis.
Goodchild, M., Egenhofer, M. & Kemp, K., 1998. Whither Geographic Information Science? The Varenius Project A Special Issue of the International Journal of Geographical Information Science Introduction . structure, (February 1997), pp.1–102. Available at:  [Accessed December 1, 2012].
Goodchild, M.F., 1992. Geographic Information Science. International Journal of Geographic Information Systems, 6(1), pp.31–45.
Goodchild, M.F., 2010. Twenty years of progress: GIScience in 2010. Journal of Spatial Information Science, 1(1), pp.3–20. Available at: [Accessed November 24, 2012].
Mark, D.M., 2003. Geographic Information Science: Defining the Field M. Duckham, M. F. Goodchild, & M. F. Worboys, eds. Science, pp.1–15. Available at: 


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