Is GIS a tool or a science? There's a lengthy and dense paper on the matter here. Could someone offer a more digestible summary?

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    This should be Community Wiki, probably. Commented Jul 22, 2010 at 19:13
  • This forum is more for questions with definitive answers not for discussions.
    – Chris M
    Commented Jul 22, 2010 at 19:19
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    I wouldn't discourage these kinds of questions since they often reveal interesting philosophies of practice, which in the long terms have concrete practical applications. Commented Jul 22, 2010 at 19:23
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    it's not a subjective question. There is a objective answer to this. The answer to this question defines what we do on a daily basis, but I don't think it's offtopic. Commented Jul 22, 2010 at 19:24
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    I think this is a good question and worthy of exploration, even if it may not lead to a definitve answer. We can close it, in awhile, if it gets too long and windy. Commented Jul 22, 2010 at 21:58

6 Answers 6


I would say that a GIS is a tool, while geographic information science is a science.

  • You are correct. I should make a distinction between the acronyms in the post. Commented Jul 22, 2010 at 19:17

Great question Charles.

They are both. GIScience has a much bigger scope and depth. GIScience investigates better methods, methodologies to achieve something. For instance, developing an new algorithm to process remote sensing imagery and extract certain features.

GIS is a tool, used by others to achieve desired results. A GIS user uses certain algorithms to fulfill a purpose - extract all roads from a remote sensing image.

EDIT: as jwise noted GIS = Geographic Information Systems GISciente = Geographic Information Science

  • typo: "theY are both" Commented Jul 22, 2010 at 21:55

Geographic Information Systems are the set of computing tools to store, analyze, and visualize spatial information. Geographic Information Science is the systematic pursuit of understanding geographic reality and interaction using computing analogs.


One interesting distinction that Michael Goodchild has noted is between GIS and statistics: many modern statistical methods were developed in the nineteenth century, but were difficult and costly to compute by hand. Only with the advent of the personal computer did the costs fall sufficiently to enable widespread use of computationally expensive statistical methods.

Early geographic information systems (GIS), however, were partially driven by the availability of technology and later searched for relevant problems and scientific methods. This process has come full circle, with the formation of the field of geographic information science (GISci), which provides the intellectual framework for handling issues raised when using a GIS.

  • +1 Great answer. I'd encourage you to link to external supporting resources for this if you have any.
    – JasonBirch
    Commented Jul 23, 2010 at 2:03
  • See M.F. Goodchild (1992) Geographical information science. International Journal of Geographical Information Systems 6(1): 31–45. geog.ucsb.edu/~good/papers/166.pdf Commented Nov 22, 2011 at 22:46

A Geographic Information SYSTEM is, well, a system. It comprises tools, data (what good is the tool with nothing to work on?), the people who use it and make it work, and all the glue between those parts (workflow, geoprocessing models, etc.).

There is a tendency to think all one needs to do is go out and acquire arcgis/manifold/ermapper/qgis/whatever, a "GIS", and then start whipping out maps. In truth that's only the barest beginning.

  • Agreed, calling GIS a tool is under-representing the system require for practical application of the methods made possible through investigations in geographic information science. I personally think that making a distinction between Systems and Science is facile; it is all part of one field of practice.
    – JasonBirch
    Commented Jul 23, 2010 at 2:06

I feel that Geography itself is a tool more than a discipline or science. You can use the tools of geography to assist in answering question from many other disciplines.

  • I disagree. Geography (not GIS or GISci) have a very well defined study object: space and it's relation with humans. Geographers use GIS/GISci to create and test hypothesis. Commented Jul 23, 2010 at 2:17

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