Geography, Geospatial, and GIS

I was participating in a Clubhouse discussion today when someone asked the about the distinction between GIS and geospatial. Since Clubhouse is audio-only, I am paraphrasing by contribution to that particular discussion here.

I think the boundaries and definitions of these concepts are pretty blurry and I am reticent to create hard distinctions between them. In my daily life, I use the three terms “geography,” “geospatial,” and “GIS,” but I don’t use them interchangeably. I see all three as related in a layered fashions with geography being the bottom base layer and GIS being the top layer. I’ll briefly discuss each from bottom to top.

GrammarFascist, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

First is geography. The way I think about it, geography is the science that underpins the entire “geo” technology industry, as well as others. It is the theoretical, mathematical, and scientific construct that defines the boundaries of the sandbox in which we play. Because it’s a science, those boundaries are always changing and expanding, but that’s simply understood. Without the science of geography, the rest isn’t possible.

Next comes “geospatial.” That’s a pretty nebulous term and you can get as many definitions as people you ask to give you one. This is simply my view. Geospatial is the ever-evolving collection of patterns as practices we use to apply geography to problem-solving – and it is very broad. As a result people tend to specialize in segments (raster analysis, feature extraction, demographics, etc.) There’s a nearly infinite number of ways to apply geography and more are being developed all the time while some fall out of favor. The way I see it, whether you are a “pixel pusher” or a “vector bender” or anything in between, if you are applying geographic methods, you are “doing geospatial.”

Finally, there’s GIS. GIS, to me, is the set of tools we use to perform geospatial tasks. They typically encapsulate and automate accepted geospatial practices in a variety of means, whether interactive or fully automated and unassisted. I see any such tool as GIS: spatial databases, QGIS, ArcGIS, Google Earth Engine, OGR, programming libraries that can be added to custom programs. All are GIS. Like geospatial, the landscape of GIS is broad and people will tend to specialize, but they are all using GIS in some form.

I see these concepts as layered because without an understanding of geography, you can’t really build proficiency with geospatial practices. Without understanding of geospatial practices – an understanding of what you want to do, you can’t really become an effective user of GIS – or how you are going to do it.

That’s my view of the world that helps me navigate through the “geo” landscape each day. It’s not canon. Others will differ and that’s okay, but this is the conceptual framework I use to keep things straight.