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A Short History Of Geospatial Data

How geospatial data has changed throughout time.

People have used maps, as a way to display geospatial data for centuries. Some of the earliest known maps ever discovered used simple dot-points and lines to map out constellations in the sky. These basic dot and line patterns helped early humans understand the stars from a spatial perspective.

Humans seem to have an almost natural propensity toward map making, even in daily life; Drawing out maps on the fly, to show friends or relatives locations and directions. We might spontaneously draw a circle to represent a park or village, mark some lines to represent streets or use points and symbols to show places on a piece of paper. Such polygons, lines and points represent the same basic data components that make up what we now call Geospatial data.

One of the first, and most famous cases of geospatial application was back in 1954 during a cholera outbreak in the Soho district of London. Dr. John Snow, one of the founding fathers of modern epidemiology, who happened to live in the Soho district during the outbreak, used a map to record both the number of, and location of cholera deaths in the area. By visualizing this data on a map, he was then able identify that the common element among these cases, where that they clustered around the main water pump in the area.  Later, it was confirmed that there was bacteria existing in the public well from which the neighborhood was retrieving its water supply. The pump was removed and the outbreak subsided. This case represents the prototype of spatial clustering concept in Geospatial analysis. View his map here.

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The 1950’s and 60’s advances in computer technology saw the introduction of new hardware and graphic processing, which allowed for the invention and creation of GIS systems as a way to map geospatial data digitally. Canada’s Geographic Information System was the first full GIS system every created, led by Dr. Roger Tomlinson and completed in the mid 1960’s.

Dr. Roger Tomlinson, known as “Father of GIS” originally created the CGIS system simply as a means to analyze data collected by the Canada Land Inventory (CLI) for developing land management plans for large farming areas in rural Canada. CGIS was a powerful tool that brought about the innovation and introduction of many new concepts, technology and methodology on spatial data analysis that impacted GIS significantly. You can watch Dr. Roger Tomlinson discuss his view on the purpose of CGIS in this video here.

With new computer and satellite imagery development, ever expanding types and formats of geospatial data can be generated and processed through modern GIS systems. Geospatial data can now be leveraged in many different fields, from natural resource planning, urban planning, disaster prediction, health and disease control, emergency response or many other commercial and retailing activities in our daily life. Institutions and business can hardly live without geospatial data application anymore. To learn more about the history and development of GIS, check out this video.

By Sam Ho 
SVP, Data Intelligence

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