History of GIS

Within the last five decades, GIS has evolved from a concept to a science. The phenomenal evolution of GIS from a rudimentary tool to a modern, powerful platform for understanding and planning our world is marked by several key milestones.


The Early History of GIS

The field of geographic information systems (GIS) started in the 1960s as computers and early concepts of quantitative and computational geography emerged. Early GIS work included important research by the academic community. Later, the National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis, led by Michael Goodchild, formalized research on key geographic information science topics such as spatial analysis and visualization. These efforts fueled a quantitative revolution in the world of geographic science and laid the groundwork for GIS.    


The First GIS

Roger Tomlinson’s pioneering work to initiate, plan, and develop the Canada Geographic Information System resulted in the first computerized GIS in the world in 1963. The Canadian government had commissioned Tomlinson to create a manageable inventory of its natural resources. He envisioned using computers to merge natural resource data from all provinces. Tomlinson created the design for automated computing to store and process large amounts of data, which enabled Canada to begin its national land-use management program. He also gave GIS its name.    


The Harvard Laboratory

While at Northwestern University in 1964, Howard Fisher created one of the first computer mapping software programs known as SYMAP. In 1965, he established the Harvard Laboratory for Computer Graphics. While some of the first computer map-making software was created and refined at the Lab, it also became a research center for spatial analysis and visualization. Many of the early concepts for GIS and its applications were conceived at the Lab by a talented collection of geographers, planners, computer scientists, and others from many fields. 


Esri is Founded

In 1969, Jack Dangermond—a member of the Harvard Lab—and his wife Laura founded Environmental Systems Research Institute, Inc. (Esri). The consulting firm applied computer mapping and spatial analysis to help land use planners and land resource managers make informed decisions. The company’s early work demonstrated the value of GIS for problem solving. Esri went on to develop many of the GIS mapping and spatial analysis methods now in use. These results generated a wider interest in the company’s software tools and work-flows that are now standard to GIS. 


GIS Goes Commercial

As computing became more powerful, Esri improved its software tools. Working on projects that solved real-world problems led the company to innovate and develop robust GIS tools and approaches that could be broadly used. Esri’s work gained recognition from the academic community as a new way of doing spatial analysis and planning. In need of analyzing an increasing number of projects more effectively, Esri developed ARC/INFO—the first commercial GIS product. The technology was released in 1981 and began the evolution of Esri into a software company. 

GIS Today

GIS gives people the ability to create their own digital map layers to help solve real-world problems. GIS has also evolved into a means for data sharing and collaboration, inspiring a vision that is now rapidly becoming a reality—a continuous, overlapping, and interoperable GIS database of the world, about virtually all subjects. Today, hundreds of thousands of organizations are sharing their work and creating billions of maps every day to tell stories and reveal patterns, trends, and relationships about everything.


GIS is about uncovering meaning and insights from within data. It is rapidly evolving and providing a whole new framework and process for understanding.

Jack Dangermond
CEO, Esri

The Future of GIS

With its movement to web and cloud computing, and integration with real-time information via the Internet of Things, GIS has become a platform relevant to almost every human endeavor—a nervous system of the planet. As our world faces problems from expanding population, loss of nature, and pollution, GIS will play an increasingly important role in how we understand and address these issues and provide a means for communicating solutions using the common language of mapping.

GIS Showcase

GIS maps do more than display and analyze data—they also tell powerful stories. Discover interactive maps and visualizations created with GIS that inform, engage, and inspire.    

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