Is it a science? Is it a technology? Managing GIS and developing the new GIS&T Body of Knowledge

BOK1The title of the foreword to the first edition of the Geographic Information Science & Technology Body of Knowledge (free download at asserts that GIS is “Transforming Science and Society.” That is a powerful statement. Not only is what we do part science and part technology, but what we do is transforming science and society.

What exactly is GIS? For those of us who are GIS practitioners, GIS professionals (GISPs), and GIS managers, we take it for granted. We know what it is, don’t we? At King County GIS, I present a free workshop titled What is GIS? a few times every year, so I should know, eh? But the reality is that what I don’t know about GIS could fill a book.

Well, recently I was asked to contribute some of the little that I do know about GIS to help fill a book. Over the next month or so I will be drafting a section on System Management for the next edition of the Geographic Information Science & Technology Body of Knowledge.

I usually think of GIS as comprising four major components: data, hardware, software, and people. These components work together in a system. They function only as a system.


But do we ever step back from our day-to-day work assignments to consider where we fit within the scope of everything that GIS comprises? A GIS, like the Coast Guard’s tall ship Eagle, is a really complex system that depends on many components of technology. GIS components are designed to work within laws of geographic and data science, to provide useful benefits for the people, agencies, or companies that employ the GIS.

Think about what you do as a GIS practitioner or GISP. Where does your role intersect the four major components of GIS? The 2006 GIS&T Body of Knowledge defined ten broad knowledge areas: analytical methods, conceptual foundations, cartography and visualization, design aspects, data modelling, data manipulation, geocomputation, geospatial data, GIS&T and society, and organizational and institutional aspects. Within the GIS&T Body of Knowledge, each knowledge area includes multiple sub-units and dozens of knowledge topics. Have you mastered them all?

But don’t panic. Within an effective system we can rely on the work of others, including various products, tools, services, and procedures. Within GIS we do this every day. But how often do we step back to assess how well our geographic information system was designed and developed, or is maintained and utilized. When is the appropriate time within the GIS life-cycle to make a system assessment?

For the new GIS&T Body of Knowledge, 10 knowledge area editors will coordinate the development, review, and publication of content within their subject area. I will be working with Professor David Tulloch, Rutgers University, Editor for Knowledge Economy topics. I will be drafting the entry for topic KE-21 System Management.

spider2For about 10 years now I and others have been developing and refining the GIS Capability Maturity Model (GISCMM). The application of the GISCMM and other GIS-related maturity models will be the focus of my approach for drafting KE-21. The latest issue of the URISA Journal includes two articles that provide examples of assessing the development and effectiveness of existing GIS operations against conceptual models.

Knowledge is power. I hope to demonstrate that we as GIS managers, professionals, and practitioners need to periodically assess our individual geographic information systems against a conceptual model of the core components that make up the system. The insights that such an assessment provides can help us target small but very cost-effective enhancements to improve the operational benefits and ROI from our GIS.

Another reason that this work is important is that the new GIS Certification Institute’s Geospatial Core Technical Knowledge Exam required for new GISPs is based on content from the GIS&T Body of Knowledge and from the GeoTech Center’s Geospatial Technology Competency Model.

I will report on my progress on KE-21 from time to time here in GIS & You. And please share your thoughts about this topic and possible best practices for system management within the GIS domain. Thanks.

Greg Babinski is KCGIS Center Finance and Marketing Manager.

One thought on “Is it a science? Is it a technology? Managing GIS and developing the new GIS&T Body of Knowledge

  1. Pingback: Strengthening the GIS Profession | GIS & You

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