Geo vs GIS, a long lasting theme

Is there a difference between Geo and GIS? Many people ask me this question, and when they do not ask I tend to tell them that there is that clear difference. Last week I had such a discussion again, and it kept me thinking. The main reason for this blog post is to put my ideas on virtual paper, so I can in the future to refer to it. Of course I know that this kind of subjects can also start a discussion. If that is the case, please feel free to add your comments.

The Definition

Lets start at the begin, the definition of GIS, since that is the source of much confusion. I believe that for decades all was clear: we had GIS software that processed Spatial data or Geo data. But then came online mapping tools and navigation systems. These systems work with geo information, so in the above description they will be GIS. But are they really?

All this depends on our definition of what Geographical Information Systems are. If we look at it from an information system perspective the GIS will be a wide range of techniques. For example when we take a definition as they can be found in dictionaries on the web for Information Systems (IS) we read:

information system: The entire infrastructure, organization, personnel, and components that collect, process, store, transmit, display, disseminate, and act on information. [from The Free Dictionary]

Other descriptions are similar, they all mention a mix of technical and human resources that in combination are able to process data. In this way we can talk about “the GIS department”, “the GIS software”, and even “the GIS data”. In this definition our navigation systems, departments and teams, and online mapping tools like Bing and Google Maps are GIS. As I stated before this definition is too wide to my opinion.

In the most strict definition one can say: GIS is the software, the toolbox. Geo is the information that the GIS needs. Geo is the model and GIS works with it. I do realize that this definition leaves the human resource side and the special hardware of our field out of the discussion. And this is exactly the point where complexity starts.

Let me summarize briefly the different definitions of GIS.

GIS is:

  1. The entire infrastructure, organization, personnel, and components that work with spatial data.
  2. The software and the spatial data.
  3. The software.

Much of the discussion depends on what you choose as a definition.

The Discussion

It should be mentioned that this GIS is nothing without the spatial data that can be processed with it. But is it part of the GIS? I often ask a question like: “Does the word processor also contain the texts you are about to write when you unpack the box?” These text for the word processor are like the geo data for the GIS.

So I make a clear distinction between Geo and GIS. The consequence of this distinction is that for me the only possible definition is the third one. And I realize that this conflicts with the general definition of Information Systems.

Let me even go one step ahead — especially when we would like to keep the information system definition — and propose to make more use of the term Spatial Information System when it comes to the definition for the infrastructure, organization, personnel, and components. In that way we can reserve the term GIS for the software and Geo (or Spatial) for the data. Combinations with other fields like Spatial Intelligence but also the place of Remote Sensing may come more usable in this way.

I wonder what others are thinking…