What is Geospatial Technology?

As Caitlin Dempsey the editor of GIS Lounge explains in her article of 14 January 2014 “What is the Difference between GIS and Geospatial?“, the terms GIS and Geospatial are used interchangeably, yet have different meanings. Not much appears to have changed, so let’s try to make the distinction clear.

Geospatial technology is an umbrella term for technologies used in the measurement, management, analysis, visualization and dissemination of data and information that is referenced to a position on, below or above the earth’s surface. Use of the term Geospatial is becoming more widespread, and here are possible causes:

  • Constituent technologies are becoming more integrated and boundaries are dissipating. For example, GIS software packages now have strong Remote Sensing functionality.
  • Job roles are increasingly referring to function (e.g. Geospatial Analyst) than technology (e.g. GIS Specialist) and professionals are expected to be technology-savvy.
  • Consolidation has taken place within the industry resulting in a small number of big players with a large portfolio of geospatial technologies.
  • Market penetration of geospatial technologies is increasing and novice users prefer to use geospatial as a general term over technical jargon that has no meaning for them.

The best-known constituent technologies of geospatial are: GIS (Geographic Information System), RS (Remote Sensing) and GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System). Let’s look at them more closely.

  1. GIS – the term GIS was coined by Dr. Roger Tomlinson, widely acknowledged as the father of GIS, in the late sixties. At that time the PC and many of you weren’t even born. The term Information System had real meaning during the era of client/server computing in the last decade of the 20th century. However, enterprise and cloud computing which are web-based have shifted our thinking from systems to services. Hence, it might be more appropriate to interpret GIS as Geo-Information Science or Geo-Information Services.
  2. RS – Remote sensing refers to the use of airborne sensors that are fitted in airplanes and off-late satellites. The sensors measure electromagnetic reflection on, below and above the earth in spectral bands (e.g. blue, infra-red) using active or passive signals. Remote sensing can be used for weather observation, mineral exploration, yield prediction, mapping and a host of other applications. One wonders why Remote Sensing isn’t more widely used, but the outlook looks increasingly bright with the proliferation of earth observation satellites.
  3. GNSS – better known as GPS (Global Positioning System) a space-based radio-navigation system owned by the US Government. GNSS is more accurate, since there are other global operational systems like Russia’s GLONASS and the EU’s GALILEO. GNSS is used in the consumer space by smartphones and car navigation system, and essential for transportation management on land, sea and in the air. In the geospatial world GNSS is widely used for mapping and surveying and increasingly drives mission-critical business applications.

In conclusion, as an industry insider feel free to use correct technical jargon to impress your peers. When dealing with outsiders, consider yourself a geospatial technology advocate. Avoid use of technical jargon, and focus on telling your audience what geospatial technology can do for them. What are your thoughts?

About Author:

Willy Simons came to Kenya from The Netherlands in 1994. He is a serial entrepreneur and co-founder of Oakar Services, Esri Eastern Africa and Spatiality. He blogs about business, geospatial technology and cloud computing.