Roots of Geographic Information Systems in the United Kingdom By James McAndrew (September 10, 2004


It is hard to believe that only in the past 250 years, we have begun to learn how to reliably measure time and space. Without reliable measurements, it is next to impossible to travel long distances at sea and expect to arrive safely and on time, to navigate rocky waters, or to survey new land. Originally the ability to find one’s longitude was primarily valuable to ships needing to navigate their way to distant coasts for trade. Today, since it has become much easier to determine one’s location, this information has become useful in many other aspects of our lives. With so much data now available, from so many different sources, a relatively new field has developed, that is information science. Information science is the field that specializes in organizing data into information that is useful to meet one’s goals. Examples of this can be found everywhere in today’s data-centered world. When you use a library’s card catalog system, you are using an information system. Typically an information system can be used to take large amounts of data, such as marketing research, and analyze it so it can lead a manager to optimal business decisions. Geographical data, such was latitude and longitude, can be stored with other information denoting landmarks or features such as trade routes. With the advent of the computer and computerized information science, this geographical information can be used to create many new ways to use and to apply the spatial data. Many new information systems incorporating geospatial information are being created in the fields of ecology, civil engineering, and marketing. This growth in geospatial databases has established a rationale for information science professionals to understand the basics and the history of latitude and longitude.


Until the 1750s, there was no reliable way to determine one’s longitude while at sea. The ability to determine one’s longitude and latitude was critical to establish and to maintain naval and economy power. The solution to the problem came from a carpenter named John Harrison. Harrison applied his knowledge as a carpenter, qualities of different types of wood, precise measurement, and design, to clocks, and was able to create clocks that could tell time reliably while at sea. Harrison created four versions of his extremely reliable clock called a chronometer. The fourth version, the H4 was only five inches in diameter, and was extremely portable. Harrison’s chronometer allowed ships to compare their local noon with noon at a known location on earth. (Sobel) The ability to reliably compare local noon to a known location allowed ships to tell their longitude. This method is still sometimes used today, but is rapidly being replaced with newer technologies. In the 1970s the United States of America launched its satellites for the global positioning system (GPS) into orbit. This system marks a major advancement in the world of geospatial information systems. For the first time, systems could report their geographical location within a few meters; including latitude, longitude, and height above sea level. This system also uses what is called the WGS84 (World Geodetic System 84) to determine latitude and longitude. This system is slightly different than the agreedupon system that was created using the Prime Meridian as 0°. (National Maritime Museum) Over the past century, there have been many influences on the latitude and longitude system that have allowed the 0º marker to differ slightly from the Prime Meridian. The most influential change came with the advent of American satellites and


their use of Doppler to determine a location on earth. The Doppler system proved to be easy to use and very reliable. This system was based on lining up the latitude and longitude system at the equator, which caused the data to skew at higher latitudes. Although the Doppler system was slightly inaccurate, its coordinate system was adopted to later systems such as the GPS and its WGS84. GPS is making many existing technologies faster, safer, and easier. GPS, when combined with other information systems, offers a valuable source of data to ships navigating the oceans, to pilots finding their destinations, and to automobile drivers with the latest street mapping software. GPS is an easy way to enter geospatial data into a database and has been becoming increasingly popular to local governments in the areas of land surveying, transportation, and emergency services. Modern airlines utilize many types of information systems in their business, such as ticketing, marketing, passenger, and security. Airlines now use information systems to help guide planes on their proper course and to avoid collision. Geospatial information systems can be used to direct the airplanes away from storms or strong wind currents, as well as other aircrafts. These systems are also of great important for emergency use. Information systems can direct an airplane to the closest airport large enough to accommodate the aircraft and to calculate the best route to take quickly and accurately.. Location is just as important today to the shipping industry as it ever was. Today, most American ships will carry a GPS for navigation. The GPS can be used on ships to plan a course to their destination while taking in account many factors. These factors include seasonal currents, current weather conditions, and the paths of other ships. The


use of geospatial information systems can save time at sea, and help to avoid problems that could reduce the profitability of the shipping companies. A large growth in geospatial information systems can be found in the automobile industry. Many new cars are coming with a built in geospatial information system software. This software, combined with a built in GPS device, allows the automobile to know its location at any time. The information system can then also determine the best route to the driver’s destination. This can be useful to a driver trying to navigate unfamiliar streets, to use alternative routes, or to a delivery person in search of the most efficient route. Many shipping companies use geospatial information systems to ensure that everything is running smoothly, and that their merchandise is being handled properly. It is common today for trucking companies to install GPS devices in trucks and to periodically track a driver’s progress to determine where they are and to make sure they are abiding by the trucking laws. It also has been tried by rental car companies to fine people for going over the speed limit or leaving their allowed jurisdiction in their rented car. Local governments are beginning to use GPS to survey their land and enter it into a large database of geographic information. A database of deeds in a town is a good example of a geospatial information system. A database of deeds includes the location, dimensions, and size of the land owned by a specific owner or group. This information can be used to study the use of land within a municipality. By creating an information system, municipalities can make this public information much more accessible to residents and developers, and allow for much quicker development and less overhead.


In a specific case, reported by the New York Times, (Gordon, New York Times) the small town in eastern Connecticut of North Stonington was surveying its land area using new GPS technology. The town discovered that its borders were drawn slightly incorrectly. It was learned that the town charter included land, which is now considered to be part of Rhode Island. If this is true, it means that 22 acres of land, and 18 houses could become part of Connecticut. With the development of land, comes the need for more roads, better access to shipping routes, and inevitable changes to the area’s water table. This is another field in which geospatial information systems are widely used. “The spatial nature of many stormwater and waste management problems makes them particularly amenable to solution by GIS {Geographical Information Systems} techniques” (Easa & Chan, 151). Using information collected in the field using GPS and other technologies, municipalities can simulate the effects of heavy rains and floods on different areas, and create drainage systems accordingly. It is possible, using today’s information systems to predict just how much rain is needed to bring a river to its flood level or to cause a dam to overflow. This is critical information regarding safety, development, and expansion of living space. The planning of new routes for roads and trains can be made much easier using geospatial information technology. “The potential for research and application in the transportation area is largely untapped but is likely to grow” (Easa & Chan, pg 117). A civil engineer can survey prospective land in the field with GPS technologies, and bring the information back to his or her office for further analysis. Using this technology, an engineer may discover better ways to build a road than they would have been able to using more traditional systems.


Arguably, one of the most important uses for geospatial information systems is in the emergency services field. Without the use of modern information systems, it would be very difficult to perform with such a level of performance what these people do everyday. Emergency service is an industry where every second counts, and every effort or strategy to improve efficiency is worth it. Using geospatial information systems, 911 operators are able to take an address or a phone number and correlate it to a physical place. Emergency centers also have the ability to use triangulation to find the location of a cellular phone. As the older cellular technology becomes replaced with digital networks, it is becoming very common to integrate a GPS device directly into the mobile phone. Today, we have more access to information than ever before. The global use of information emphasizes and reinforces our need to use standards when documenting measurements. In the Information Science subfield of Geospatial information systems, the most important measurements are latitude and longitude. It is important to an information science professional working with spatial analysis to understand the origins of the coordinate system used around the world and to be aware it global impact. In the future, spatial databases will contain more data and become much more complex. It is up the information professionals to work with these databases and allow for the most efficient and up-to-date systems to be created and applied.


Works Cited

Easa, S. & Chan, Y. (2000). Urban planning and development applications of GIS. Reston, VA: American Society of Civil Engineers.

Gordon, Jane. (2003 May 25). Drawing a Line, And Defending It New York Times. Retrieved August 21, 2004 from LexisNexis database.

Grimshaw, David. (2000). Bringing Geographical Information Systems into Business. New York: John Wiley.

National Maritime Museum. Royal Observatory Greenwich. Retrieved August, 20 2004, From: WebDoc/contentId/416/navId/00500300f00e

Sobel, Dava. (1998). Longitude. New York: Walker.


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