The power of Spatial Thinking – Why GIS is more than just a tool

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Step into the world of Geospatial Science – a field that has been making waves in recent times, receiving immense support from various sectors. This cutting-edge technology is being integrated into fields like security, politics, government, healthcare and energy, with the promise of revolutionising these areas.

However, amid all this excitement there is an unspoken disagreement about the true nature and potential of Geospatial Science. Some believe that it is just another tool in the vast toolbox of statistical analysis software, not worth pursuing as an academic or professional field. But can we really afford to limit the scope of this powerful technology? As a responsible member of this community, I feel compelled to express my viewpoint on this crucial matter.

Join me on this journey to unlock the true potential of Geospatial Science and reap the benefits it holds for nations.

What is GIS and GIscience

The Geographic Information System (GIS) is a software programme that allows users to store, process and display spatial data. This data includes information about locations such as latitude and longitude, and other related attributes. GIS is a crucial tool in a variety of industries; including urban planning, natural resource management, and emergency response just to mention a few.

In addition to being a software programme, GIS is also a field of study known as Geographic Information Science (GIscience). GIscience focuses on creating innovative methods for storing, analysing and visualizing spatial data. Geographic Information Science is often abbreviated as GIscience to avoid confusion with the software programme.

Spatial thinking is the guiding principle of GIscience. It involves organising and integrating concepts based on space. Understanding the characteristics of space – such as dimensionality, continuity, proximity and separation – is essential to effective spatial thinking.

It is important to note that GIS is not just a tool but a way of thinking. Without a solid understanding of the foundational concepts of GIscience, users cannot effectively utilise the full potential of GIS. GIS is a multifaceted system that includes both a software programme and a field of study, and requires spatial thinking to be fully utilised.

Spatial thinking

Thinking is a cognitive process that involves use of the mind to generate ideas, solve problems and make decisions. There are many different ways to think, and these can be classified based on their reasoning method or representational system. Some of the most common types of thinking include logical, metaphorical, hypothetical, mathematical and statistical.

Logical thinking involves using reason and evidence to arrive at a conclusion or solve a problem. This type of thinking is based on the principles of logic, such as the use of deductive reasoning and the formation of syllogisms. Metaphorical thinking involves using analogies and symbols to represent abstract ideas. Hypothetical thinking involves imagining possible scenarios and considering the consequences of different actions. Mathematical thinking involves using numbers, equations and formulas to solve problems and understand the world. Statistical thinking involves using data and statistical methods to analyse and interpret information.

Spatial thinking is another type of reasoning. It involves understanding the relationships between objects in space and using this knowledge to solve problems and make decisions. Spatial thinking is unique in that it combines the methods of representation from logical, metaphorical, hypothetical, mathematical and statistical reasoning in addition to its own representational tools such as maps, diagrams and models to visualise and understand spatial relationships. By understanding the different types of thinking and their applications, we can become more effective problem-solvers and decision-makers in a wide range of contexts.

The concept of space

Space can be defined as the vast, boundless three-dimensional expanse in which objects exist and move in relation to each other. It is a fundamental concept that plays a crucial role in geography, as it provides a framework for understanding the relationships between different elements of our world. The human eye can perceive everything within this space, and every aspect of human life – including work, social activities, crime and recreation – has to do with location.

Geospatial professionals observe patterns in the placement of these objects over time, and by analysing these patterns they can make predictions and prevent similar occurrences. The characteristics of space – such as dimensionality, continuity, proximity and separation – help us to comprehend and make sense of these patterns.

The primary goal of GIS (Geographic Information Systems) analysis is to study the relationships between different spatial features by utilising the various dimensions of spatial attributes; such as distance, dimension, closeness, separation and so on. There are several factors to consider when conducting this analysis, including the measurement units, distance calculation methods, coordinate systems, and the nature of spaces – such as whether they are two- or three-dimensional. By understanding these factors, we can gain a better understanding of the complex relationships that exist within our world.

Tools of representation

When it comes to geographic representation, there are four main components: points, lines, polygons and raster. However, these features vary in terms of height, size and dimensions. In GIS analysis, the goal is to accurately capture the physical world on paper. This means that the size of a feature will determine whether it should be represented as a point, polygon or raster. A significant challenge in true representation is the projection of a spheroid onto a flat surface, such as a computer screen or a map.

Since the earth is a spheroid, accurately representing its features and locations on a flat surface is difficult. Another objective of GIS is to use visual design principles for conveying information to a diverse audience. Finally, GIS analysts have the responsibility of presenting information in a way that is easily understood, even for those without a background in the field. These are just a few of many steps involved in the process of representing aspects of the planet on paper.


The work of a GIS analyst involves a significant amount of reasoning, problem-solving and decision-making. For example, when determining the shortest distance to a location analysts must consider whether to measure it using the Euclidean measurement which is measured ‘as the crow flies’, or the ‘Manhattan measurement’ that uses a rectangular street-grid. This requires analysts to evaluate the situation and make an informed decision based on the specific circumstances.

In addition, GIS analysts must be able to visualise the end-result of a project before determining how to get there. This means being able to imagine the final outcome of a project, including any potential challenges or obstacles that may arise. This allows the analyst to develop a clear plan of action and prepare to handle any issues that may arise along the way.

While GIS software is incredibly useful, it does not contain everything that a GIS analyst needs. Sometimes it is necessary to borrow formulas and methods from other fields – such as mathematics, economics or computer science – in order to complete a task. This requires the analyst to be knowledgeable about a wide range of topics, and be able to apply that knowledge in a GIS context.

To be successful in this field a GIS analyst must also be able to think critically, use initiative and be creative in solving problems. This is because the real world can be complex and unpredictable, and often requires a customised approach to problem-solving. By combining logic, creativity and initiative, a GIS analyst can overcome challenges and create effective solutions for their client or organisation.

GIS is not just a tool but rather a way of thinking. It requires a deep understanding of the GIscience fundamentals, as well as an appreciation for the nuances and complexities of spatial data. Unlike other software tools that simply organise and display data, GIS demands a meticulous categorisation of information into spatial and non-spatial categories – and a thorough understanding of the various projections required for different tasks.

GIS is more than just a piece of software – it is a vehicle for structuring problems, finding answers and expressing solutions. To truly harness the power of GIS, we must approach it with a mindset that goes beyond its surface-level capabilities. By embracing GIS as a way of thinking, we can unlock its full potential and achieve truly remarkable results.

>>>the writer is the founder of Where Geospatial and currently the President of Where Geospatial Media, a not for profit organisation whose vision is to establish a geospatial ecosystem that aids development by utilising geospatial technologies. Professionally, he works as a GIS Solutions Engineer, assisting clients in integrating GIS technologies into their work processes to increase productivity through training and technical support. He occasionally publishes some of his thoughts in blogs.

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