David M. Mark, Nicholas Chrisman, Andrew U. Frank, Patrick H. McHaffie, John Pickles
with contributions from
Michael Curry, Jon Goss, Francis Harvey, Ken Hillis, Roger Miller, Eric Sheppard, Dalia Varanka
Authors addresses and affiliations
At the same time, GIS is a young field. Although its antecedents go back hundreds of years in the fields of cartography and mapping, GIS as such began in the 1960s, and thus many of the individuals involved in the earliest stages of the invention and definition of GIS are alive today. With the maturing of the GIS industry and the development of a "geographic information science" surrounding the technology (Goodchild, 1992), the time is right for a study of the history of GIS based primarily on in-depth interviews with the innovators and founders themselves.
The main goals of our research are to uncover and document the technical, social, and institutional factors that shaped the early development of GIS, and thus have had a major influence on GIS as we know it today. To what extent were alternative representations considered and rejected? What were these "roads not taken"? In what ways did institutional mandates, or computing environments, influence choices in how to implement GIS? What were the formal and informal public/private partnerships and influences at the time? And to what extent were ideas being exchanged at the time, or being independently re-invented? Our findings should have implications beyond the GIS field per se, and we hope to be able to make generalizations about key factors in the birth and development of computing technologies more generally.
At the heart of the research we propose are two questions central to NCGIA Initiative 19. First, how have particular logics and visualization techniques, value systems, forms of reasoning, and ways of understanding the world been incorporated into existing GIS techniques and in what ways have alternative forms of representation been filtered out. In this first issue, we wish to clarify the nature of the development paths taken within GIS and to map out possible alternatives that are or may be available. Addressing the choices made and the possibilities not chosen will require a detailed textual reading of the debates and decisions about system choices and foundational logics within GIS over the past 35 years, using interviews, published papers and books, conference proceedings, and private papers. The aim here will be a thorough investigation of representational logics within spatial data handling technologies, with particular attention being paid to the ways in which we can incorporate alternative cultural and social conceptions of social and natural objects (property, land, resource relational values, historical meaning) within GIS, and the possibilities for extending GIS to incorporate new ways of understanding the world. In this regard, we will pay particular attention to the extent to which GIS privilege particular conceptions and forms of knowledge, knowing, and language, and the extent to which it is possible in electronic imaging systems to develop the kind of reflexivity that many see as essential to a critical social science. But, as well as considering the ways current systems enable and/or constrain particular representational paradigms, we also will investigate the possibilities and challenges that new technologies such as virtual reality and multimedia pose for current theories of representation.
Second, in what ways have particular systems and uses of GIS resulted in differential levels of access to information. Specifically, we will address the need for a historical analysis of the ways in which GIS have developed and diffused (who funded development, what options were considered and rejected, what institutional and intellectual linkages were forged in the development of GIS, etc.) and empirical analysis of contemporary patterns of production, marketing, and use. The project also deals with the institutional settings within which GIS is practiced and asks to what ends is GIS put, and what notions of access, representation, and use underpin these practices.
The third key area is the development of contemporary GIS software and data. Although some new GISs have been developed starting with a clean slate, current GIS is dominated by software and data models whose intellectual and conceptual lineage can be traced directly back to innovations in the 1960s. The nature of current GIS cannot be fully understood without a historical perspective on how it got to be the way it is.
We have decided to focus on this third area during the initial period of the project. For a variety of reasons, the early case studies focus on the development of contemporary GIS in the United States. However, the broader "GIS History Project" will foster research on the first two topics above, and will attempt to study GIS History in other countries, especially in Canada and in Europe. Topics identified for study in the development of contemporary geographic information systems include (but are not restricted to): choices of technology and logics along the way; public-private relations in the development of GIS technology; the political economic context of the development of GIS; the marketing of GIS technology; the representation of women in the GIS community; and the different institutional contexts of GIS use (research, marketing, defense, etc.).
In the 1990s, a literature critical of GIS technology has emerged, raising questions of ethics, equity, technological biases, access, and privacy, to name a few. Recently, a literature reviewing the early history of GIS also has developed, although almost all of this is autobiographical in nature. GIS is maturing: it is being criticized as it is institutionalized in academic and government settings and is widely used in private corporations; the story of its institutionalization is being written by early developers as they reflect on their careers. This coincidence of a relatively new technology, with most of its founders still alive, and a critical literature with sound theoretical framing, presents a rare opportunity to bring the insights from the critical literature and the experiences of the pioneers of GIS together, to evaluate and interpret the decisions made and the paths taken or abandoned in the institutionalization of a technology.
One important way in which we will be able to investigate how contemporary GIS came to be the way they are is through an ethnographic analysis of contemporary developers and uses. Three 'sites' seem to be particularly important in this regard:
a. Key institutions: Which institutions provided an intellectual and material context for the development of GIS and how did their interests, operations, and ways of life affect the development of technology?
b. Key processes/events: Where were the main critical theoretical and technological turning points in the development of GIS technologies, how did these occur, and how did they affect further development?
c. Key individuals: Who were the main actors in GIS and how did their personal experiences, motivations and decisions affect the evolution of the technology and its institutionalization?
Although a few retrospective case studies had been published earlier, a key early work on the history of GIS was a special 1988 issue of the American Cartographer entitled "Reflections on a Revolution: The Transition from Analogue to Digital Representations of Space, 1958-1988," edited by Roger Tomlinson and Barbara Petchenik. This issue contains several papers that review the early history of key GIS developments. Of particular interest are Tomlinson's (1988) account of the early days of the Canada Geographic Information Systems (CGIS), Dangermond and Smith's (1988) discussion of the early days of Environmental Systems Research Institute, Chrisman's (1988) overview of activities at the Harvard Laboratory for Computer Graphics and Spatial Analysis, and Rhind's (1988) review of activities at the Experimental Cartographic Unit in the United Kingdom. In 1991, The Cartographic Journal published a similar historical special issue, "British Cartography 1987-1991: An Overview"; that, however, focuses more strongly on cartography in a narrow sense, and is less relevant to the current project.
Coppock and Rhind's 1991 book chapter provides one of the few overviews of the history of GIS that cuts across many institutions and attempts to describe activities by many individuals. The paper includes a fascinating chart compiled by Donald Cooke, that shows some of the connections or flows of ideas among place, institutions, systems, and individuals. Like the other works, however, the tone of this chapter is a presentation of facts about people, places, dates, and developments, with relatively little analysis of institutional constraints or social contexts. Still, it provides a valuable compilation of information about many of the early GIS projects.
A key recent work on the history of GIS is a forthcoming book (Fall 1997), edited by Timothy W. Foresman of the University of Maryland Baltimore County. The book contains 20 chapters, mostly by people involved in the early days of GIS and related technologies, reflecting on their experiences and the events around them. Donald Cooke's chapter on the GBF-DIME project and the US Bureau of the Census was provided to us by Mr. Cooke (Cooke, in press), and was extremely useful to us in getting our DIME case study started (see sections 7.1 and 7.7, below). We expect that many of the other chapters will be equally valuable to this project.
By the decade of the 1990s, social theorists within the discipline began to take aim at what they saw as the transformative capacities of GIS both in disciplinary and broader social terms. John Pickles' 1991 essay on The Surveillant Society, Derek Gregory's (1994) claim that GIS positivists represented the new Victorians, and Neil Smith's (1992) charge that the war against Iraq-the Gulf War-represented the first GIS war, incensed many practitioners and theorists of GIS. How could these neophytes and outsiders levy such charges, particularly against the only part of the discipline that really exercised rigor in its work and power regarding other disciplines and funding agencies?
The book "Ground Truth: The Social Implications of Geographic Information Systems," edited by Pickles (1995) aimed to locate discussion of these questions in a variety of these possible interpretative frameworks, and thereby to provide illustrations that might lead others to deepen the analysis of the intellectual and practical commitments and impacts of GIS. This was also the goal of the 1995 special issue of Cartography and Geographic Information Systems-GIS and Society-edited by Eric Sheppard (Sheppard, 1995).
The papers in these two collections, as well as workshops held in Friday Harbor, Washington (1993) and South Haven, Minnesota; (1996) were important in the emerging theory of GIS. They led to a set of assumptions that have been absent from debates about GIS until recently. Questions of origins, epistemology, data selection and data access, forms of representation, and the politics and ethics of information have generally been seen as marginal to the more technical questions of systems development and application. At these meetings they were seen as essential for any discussion of GIS and Society. GIS is thus seen as a set of institutionalized systems of data handling and imaging technologies and practices situated within particular economic, political, cultural, and legal structures. They can thus be thought of as spatial data institutions (Curry, 1995) and socio-technological ensembles (Latour, 1993). Understanding GIS as both a set of social practices and institutions embedded in a particular discourse is, perhaps, unique in the history of the engagement between GIS and social theory. Certainly, such social constructionist, genealogical, or post-positivist theoretical frameworks have been virtually absent until recently in the debates over GIS.
Developing a history of a technology like GIS can fall into two distinct (and opposite) traps. On one hand, it is common to write a "Whig" history that simply is swept along by the flow of events and ends up with a sense that the particular results were inevitable. In writing the history of technology, this tendency often appears in the form of "technological determinism" (Feenberg, 1995), a belief that technical progress is unilinear and unaffected by other forces (such as society). As a reaction to determinism, many scholars have demonstrated linkage between social, cultural factors and development of technology. Taken to the extreme, this approach places all the causation in the social realm, constituting another kind of determinism. The GIS History Project will balance these two extremes, in a position similar to Latour's (1993) "symmetric anthropology." Latour, and others who study the sociology of technology and science, emphasize the local and contingent nature of "constructing a fact" (Latour and Woolgar, 1979; Bijker and others, 1987). Usually, it is only much later that a particular technical decision will appear to be obvious or fated to succeed.
In some historical accounts, a short form is used: "X had an idea." This fits into the rather ideological form of Kuhn's (1962) presentation of paradigms in science. The individual agent is placed on a shaky pedestal when it is also rather common to observe nearly simultaneous "inventions." The fact that a number of independent groups develop similar technical solutions simply demonstrates that the total environment had prepared all the ingredients for this particular idea to emerge. In the History of GIS Project, we plan to look for situations that seem to be independent developments to examine the relative importance of information flow between groups and the influence of overall context. For an interesting discussion of multiple discoveries in science and technology, see Lamb and Easton (1984).
On this view, technological and scientific systems are separable, but often share an allegiance to similar views about space, reason, and the individual. And these views, in turn, come to be taken as natural and inevitable, particularly as science and technology are used together to construct institutions and landscapes that seem to support these ideas. In part, this is a matter of rendering invisible alternative paths. The task of the student of science and technology, then, is to sort out the ways in which individual decisions, technological objects, and institutions have together created what is now accepted as (in our case) geographic information systems, to uncover paths not taken and the ways in which the systems define what is allowed and not allowed.
Works by Harding (1986) and Haraway (1989, 1991) also provide relevant contexts for our examinations of the history of GIS. These scholars begin to reconfigure the sociology of science from positions that are explicitly feminist, non-essentialist, and context-sensitive. Harding (1986) provides a strong theoretical framework that suggests five themes to organize inquiry into the history of science: equity studies; science in the service of hegemonic projects; gender and the selection of questions and definition of research programs; false dualisms and gendered epistemologies; and relational epistemologies. The issue of science in the service of hegemonic projects is especially relevant here, since mapping (and, by extension, GIS) has long been linked with the appropriation, partitioning, classification, and commoditization of the worlds.
Technical. In the technology area, we will attempt to determine the exact nature of key technical innovations in GIS. How was the innovation related to other contemporaneous technical and technological developments outside GIS? What were the implications of these technical developments for the nature and use of geographic information systems? For example, how did technical innovation change the practice of cartography, or of spatial analysis? We will examine both how, and why, these technical developments were incorporated into the general practice of GIS, and thus standardized. We will also explore why other related technical developments were not incorporated into general practice of GIS.
Philosophical. What assumptions about society, space/place, and information technology were made by GIS developers, and how did a particular innovation reinforce or change this? How were philosophical conflicts and/or ethical/moral dilemmas in the development of GIS systems resolved, confronted or ignored?
Historical. What were the necessary conceptual and technical antecedents of particular innovations in GIS? How-via what means of communication and social networks, and in what forms-did key concepts and practices diffuse, evolve or reemerge from historical institutions?
Political-economic. In what broader political-economic and more specific institutional context (e.g., private or public) was the innovation made, and what were societal and institutional goals that led to the provision of resources to support it? How was the innovation applied, or resisted, within different institutions, and why? How did particular innovations affect the nature of the relations between non-profit, commercial and governmental institutions in GIS? How did the innovation affect the relations of production of GIS (in terms of intellectual versus manual labor, and gender, for example) in various institutions? What were implications of the innovation and its institutionalization for governmentality?
Socio-cultural. Who were the key human agents and institutional actors involved in the innovation, and what was the nature of their social relations? Did this group of GIS practitioners identify themselves as a community, both then and now, and if so on what basis? What networks of interaction and protocols of communication structure, or structured, this community? How is the development of particular innovations and the "history of GIS" being constructed by practitioners? How are these communities structured and how does the construction of identity and collective history operate to exclude others?
Selected for detailed study are: DIME and the US Census; Harvard Laboratory for Computer Graphics (and Spatial Analysis); Minnesota Land Management Information System (MLMIS); Triangulated Irregular Networks (TINs); and ESRI and Intergraph (comparison of corporate cultures). In the following sections, we describe these in turn and justify their selection. Lastly, we provide a progress report on one case study in progress, the US Census' GBF-DIME files.
This case study will examine the institutional setting of MLMIS, and the particular people involved in the creation of the MLMIS GIS. The goals are to try to: determine why Minnesota developed a GIS at such an early stage; examine the implications that the timing of this development had on choices that were made concerning technology (choice of platforms, output devices, presentation possibilities); analyze the technical, institutional and intellectual contexts influencing the choice of GIS methodology (especially the choice of a raster-format GIS); trace whether and how the vision of landscape captured in the MLMIS design reflected then-dominant conceptions of landscape in geography (particularly those of Carl Sauer); and document the kinds of studies that were carried out at different periods in the history of MLMIS (which ultimately became the Land Management Information Center-LMIC). We anticipate that the changing foci of MLMIS studies as the technology and use of GIS evolved will provide us with an excellent case study to examine the interactions of political, economic, technological, intellectual and social processes among multiple layers of government, academia, and the business community of Minnesota.
Even with this limited spectrum, one can see 20 years later that the experimental laboratories had profound effects on the organizations which funded them: both OS and IGN have moved substantial parts of their production into the electronic age and are leaders in the production of digital data. They are probably the only countries where complete digital coverage for the whole country with large scale topographic maps is available. It would be wrong to attribute these practical successes and leadership position solely to the R&D laboratories--for example, the one at the UK Ordnace Survey has been closed for several years now. Other efforts have contributed perhaps even more, but it is at least a surprising coincidence that the European NMA with experimental facilities appear to have a significant lead compared to others. One can also see that efforts which came from within the organization to use database technology to improve land registration were successful very early. These efforts were limited to the descriptive part and did not process positional data early on, they were limited to what was doable with the computer hardware, communication systems and database technology of the time. The systems were and are extremely successful, widely used and have improved the cadastral organization in Sweden and Austria profoundly. It might surprise, that no other countries seem to follow along these lines, even today, when technology is further developed and an implementation would be easier. It is certainly worthwhile to trace these two developments to learn what were the key points which made them succeed.
The somewhat similar project of the consortium of the German Laender had a much more comprehensive scope and was--typically for a consortium--a compromise between many different approaches. The project was well managed but labored slowly through a contorted road of political discussions and conflicting interests of the partners to a late success: today data are produced, the systems are used--but country wide coverage is not yet attained at the small topographic scale. These efforts are poorly documented, but the people involved could be available to relate first hand experience. It should be collected now.
Surveying instrument companies, especially Wild and Kern (now merged with Leica), started GIS software development efforts--perhaps under the impression of the successful Basel project and other similar projects in Switzerland. They followed very different approaches: for example, adapting a US product (Synercom) to the European market, starting a completely new product in a R&D facility in Canada (System 9) and developing a complete new, very limited, database oriented design in house (Kern). The three resulting products survive today, but did not make it to the top ten of GISs. Siemens, Laser-Scan (a UK company) and the firm now called Smallword are other examples of early players in the GIS field, that have survived and still offer products on the market. To describe the contorted development lines of these products would be extremely revealing, especially if compared with similar US companies.
Donald Cooke, who at the time was a programmer on the CUS staff, reports that the problem was overcome based on principles of map topology presented to the CUS staff by Census mathematician James Corbett (Cooke, in press). The encoding scheme later known as DIME (Dual Independent Map Encoding) was developed. The key idea was to number the nodes (street intersections) and the areas (typically blocks). By encoding street segments in terms of the areas to the left and right of them as well as the nodes that they connected (to node, from node), the topology was encoded with redundancy that allowed automated checking for consistency. This redundant coding of nodes and areas adjacent to each 1-dimensional object is at the core of the 'chains' or 'arcs' structure underlying modern vector GIS data models such as DLG (USGS Digital Line Graphs), SDTS (Spatial Data Transfer Standard), and the polygon layers in commercial systems such as ARC/INFO.
In the summer of 1967, the significance of the innovation was more practical: it supported efficient digitization and error removal, and laid the ground work for choropleth mapping of census results. George Farnsworth of the CUS christened the new process "DIME" (Dual Independent Map Encoding) in August 1967, Cooke and Maxfield wrote a paper about the encoding, and they were "squeezed" into Robert Barraclough's session on computer mapping at the 1967 URISA meeting the following month (Cooke and Maxfield, 1967; Cooke, in press). While not on the CUS staff, Barraclough was at the time part of a technical advisory committee to CUS. Thus, this key innovation in the history of GIS went from the spark of invention to academic publication in a period of 3-4 months! GBF-DIME files were digitized for all US cities during the 1970s, and were a key component of the current TIGER system that in turn is a critical part of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI). The prominence of the DIME encoding in the history of GIS, as seen by academics, has almost certainly been enhanced by its very early publication.
The story presented above seems simple and straightforward. However, there are some very interesting developments surrounding the Census Use Study. One centers around a parallel technical development, Robert Dial's "Street Address Conversion System" (SACS), and the other involves the promotion of commercial uses of DIME and small-area census data that contributed to the development of the US Geodemographics industry.
Donald Cooke reports that he and William Maxfield, the Census Use Study programmers who developed DIME, were not aware of Dial's SACS approach in 1967 (Cooke, in press). But this does not mean that no one at the Bureau of the Census knew about it. The Census Use Study in New Haven was operating rather independently from the Geography Division of the Census in Suitland, Maryland (Cooke, in press); William Fay headed the Geography Division until 1971 (Cooke, in press), and had championed ACG [Address Coding Guide] and resisted DIME (Cooke, in press). In 1967, Calkins (1967) presented a paper to the 46th Annual Meeting of the Highway Research Board, that reported on the application of Dial's SACS scheme to Ottawa, Canada, and cited Dial's 1964 report. Several people from the US Bureau of the Census or otherwise associated with the Census Use Study, including Robert Barraclough, Morris Hansen, and Robert Voight, also presented papers at that same Highway Research Board meeting. Two researchable questions are evident here. One would be a technical comparison of SACS and DIME in formal terms; the other is to interview key individuals from the CUS, the Geography Division of the Census, and elsewhere in the URISA and transportation communities, to determine sequences of events during 1967, and who knew what, when, about SACS and DIME.
The lab was established by Howard Fisher in the Graduate School of Design (GSD) at Harvard University, through initial funding from the Ford Foundation. Its placement in the GSD provided a context for its early development that was insulated from the principal theoretical debates raging in academic geography at the time, sometimes described as the "quantitative revolution". It's proximity to other competing institutions (e.g. MIT, Yale) allowed the easy interaction of the lab staff with other scholars engaged in similar work, and provided a competitive impetus for innovation. Since Harvard (along with most ivy league institutions) had no departmental geography at the time, the early focus of the lab was directed toward the needs of landscape architects, urban and regional planners, and resource managers (e.g. landcover characterization, choropleth mapping of census data, or contouring statistical surfaces). SYMAP itself, however, was widely generalizable and drew from Fisher's understanding of mathematical cartography in producing isoline, choropleth, and proximal maps using a standard line printer as an output device.
William Warntz, hired as a professor in 1966, was appointed to the directorship in 1969 (Chrisman, 1988) and he brought with him a track record of theoretical syncretism and eclectic collaboration (see especially Barnes, 1992; 1996). Warntz held out hopes for a reinstatement of geography as a full departmental discipline but ultimately felt that political unrest at Harvard in the spring of 1969 distracted from efforts afoot to accomplish just that (Warntz, 1988). Perhaps the most notable achievement of Warntz at the lab was the initiation of the Harvard Papers in Theoretical Geography. Inaugurated as discussion papers by Warntz in 1967, and titled the "Geography and the Properties of Surfaces Series", these dealt largely with abstract geometric principles. Later papers flirted with Warntz's predilection for synthetic connections between disparate objects (for example, Woldenberg's 1968 paper titled "Hierarchical Systems: Cities, Rivers, Alpine Glaciers, Bovine Livers, and Trees"). The paper series was also used to present translations of papers that Warntz considered as seminal to the development of spatial analysis (for example Eduard Lill's "The Law of Travel and its Application to Rail Traffic" from 1891). Warntz was also able to maintain the independence of the lab from the Harvard administration (although perhaps creating another type of external dependence) through his attraction of substantial external funding, most notably from the Office of Naval Research during this period.
It is clear that the lab was an important early moment in the development of what has evolved in GIS over the past three decades. The contributions of the lab included the training of many creative students and researchers who left the lab to make greater advances elsewhere. Chrisman (1988), Steinitz (1993), and Warntz (1988) have written articles about their experiences at Harvard and these will serve as a valuable resource for historians of science and technology. The difficult work (just beginning) in this case study will be in establishing the ways in which language communities formed through the interaction of professionals from diverse fields (architecture, geography, planning, regional science, and programming to name a few) in a particular historical/geographical context; Cambridge, Massachusetts in the late 1960's. Interesting questions for investigation will be whether and how a unique rhetoric evolved among lab faculty, researchers, and staff in the early years of the lab's existence in reference to the objects under investigation and the day-to-day practices of the group, and whether and how that language was either adopted outside the lab, passed to new lab members as they were trained/socialized, or replaced by other more successful systems of language. In short, a description of the formation and maintenance of a specific institutional culture, and the extension of that culture outside the confines of the lab will be the principal task of this case study.
With the informants' permission, interviews will be recorded and interviewees will have the right to determine whether all or selected parts of the recording should be confidential. Transcripts of interviews will be made. Transcripts edited to preserve confidentiality and will, with the permission of the interviewee, be placed in an open archive (see below). A common transcription protocol will be used in all cases.
Ideally, informants will participate in three interviews, with either one or two members of the research team present. Our first interview will be focused life history, reconstructing the individual's experiences in GIS and how she/he participated in, observed or was affected by key innovations in the field. The second will focus on the details of particular experiences, the everyday routines, actions and interactions, within the specific setting of the case study. The third focuses on reflection and interpretation of the meaning of the individual's work and life in GIS, and in particular of experiences within the case study context. If three interviews are not possible, the first and second will be combined. A second interview is vital so the interviewers can review the material and follow up on the previous interview. Interviews will be interpreted and analyzed by different methods according to the specific research question and the individual researcher, but transcripts will be both representative and diverse enough, and sufficiently deep and rich, to factually reconstruct and explain processes vital to the history of GIS and for a qualitative analysis of evolving culture of GIS.
The longer term outcome will be the production of two edited volumes on the history of GIS-the first based on the case studies and examining in detail the specific individuals, working relations and environments, and institutional contexts of GIS development; the second, cross-cutting the case studies and providing an analysis of the technical, philosophical, political-economic and socio-cultural pre-conditions, contexts and outcomes of developments in GIS technology-and the construction of a research archive, possibly to be housed at the American Geographical Society. It is hoped that this collective work will inspire other scholars to collaborate and will also act as a model for the continued critical investigation of GIS and related information and spatial technologies.
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