What is the best definition of Geographical Information Systems?

Has the definition changed at all since I was taught it 10yrs back? The technology has changed a lot and it is more powerful than it used to be, but has that changed the overall definition of what it is?

e.g. Is stuff like Augmented Reality a separate discipline altogether, or does it also merge into the world of GIS?

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    I think this question should be re-opened. Yes, it is opinion based, but the accepted answer plays into what I regard to be an extremely outdated notion of GIS, as desktop-based manipulation of maps. In the era of petabytes of multispectral data, with analysis tools like Postgres/Postgis, the Python data science ecosystem, etc, GIS has become a sub-set of computer science, where data structures and programming skills are paramount and where a map is an optional output. The lack of CS skills in GIS is acute, and answers like those below only perpetuate this problem. Apr 5, 2019 at 7:10

7 Answers 7


My definition of GIS is...

Using a map to answer a question.

When an understanding of the system has been developed that allows the use of the data and interface provided, to a point that users can answer questions and relate locational information to everyday tasks the system has become usable.

GIS "IS" to each user what best answers a locational problem for them. (It could be that if a business is paying for the system then it would "need" to be a business problem). However there are many non-business problems that can be answered that could be considered perks or job benefits. These only add to the understanding and use of locational information (GIS) in the general public. In other words IMHO limiting the use of the information only limits the understanding of GIS.

Part of the understanding and use is that there needs to be a buy-in or time investment from some segment of the users that collects, updates, or otherwise changes data to add either accuracy, additional information, or currency to complete the cycle of use.

The accuracy and currency of the data can take priority over the changes and usefullness of the interface only for a short time.

The changes and enhancements to the interface need to take into account segments of users and possibly even be developed for small sets of users and groups. While making access constraints and data availablity to user groups a priority.

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    I'm not sure if it's using a map. More like using spatial data. Maps are too narrow for GIS. There are questions that you can answer without even looking at the graphic output of data. Mar 2, 2011 at 11:22
  • @George that would be statistics. The data is one of the most important pieces. There is a reason geographic is at the front. There are also answers you can't get without looking at the graphic output. That is the geo-graphic part.
    – Brad Nesom
    Mar 2, 2011 at 14:11
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    I think putting the map as the central element is wide of the mark. The geographic relates to the fact that the phenomena under study happen at some point in space (and time). Postgis, for example, is manifestly a GIS, it can handle raster, vector, topology, 3D, time, etc. You can write incredibly complex queries without ever going near a map. Agreed, maps are a powerful visualization tool, but, very much the output, not the input. The ever increasing volume of data, often in multiple dimensions (think hyperscpectral satellites), further makes the notion of the map as central to GIS obsolete. Apr 5, 2019 at 7:04

This folds a little bit into an existing Q&A:

Define the "system" in Geographic Information System

To answer the exact question I would say things like the Augmented reality fall into a Geographic Exploration System where the user is exploring the world around them. Whereas a GIS alludes to storage and analysis as well as visualisation.


GIS is too big with too many meanings for different people. It really needs to be understood by doing (i.e. using software, dealing with data) combined with understandings of theoretical concepts. That said, any particular software will provide its own slightly personal definition and include or exclude topics and definitions and capabilities that are either taken for granted or disregarded.

As an example, Manifold Software include modern computing performance, large memory handling, 64-bit capability and database principles into the mix as a crucial part of the "definition". They also explicitly include the user as part of the definition and point to ways to maximize performance and improve results by understanding these as fundamental aspects of a "Geographic Information System".

EDIT: elaborated to try to answer the q.


My definition:

Traditional map making is an expensive and time consuming process. Since the introduction of computers the quantity and breadth of maps available to people has exploded, due to reduced cost and difficulty. GIS is the techniques, tools and processes that enabled that growth.


My definition:

A system (computer or not) that relates information with geographic features.

In the essence of this definition a GIS could be even a paper map with numbered areas and a book with tables with the information related to that numbers.


GIS Clouds

"Cloud computing furnishes technological [GIS] capabilities—commonly maintained off premises"


(so no they are not in the sky)

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    good example of how things are changing with GIS. However, can you go into more specifics on how technologies like this change the definition of GIS (if at all). i.e. Does not answer the Q
    – jakc
    Nov 27, 2010 at 6:30

GIS are software and hardware products designed to manage, visualize, analyze, model, and store data on objects and natural phenomena in various information codes and formats in various databases.

(I think so :-), those who, up down, only amuse me even more...)


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