It seems perfectly normal now to access maps through our computers. In fact, it's hard to imagine where we would be without MapQuest and Google Maps and their ilk.
Yet had it not been for a soft-spoken young geographer doing work for the Canadian Department of External Affairs more than forty years ago, we might still be fighting fan-folds whenever we wanted to figure out how to get from A to B.
It was all a matter of survival, says Roger Tomlinson as he shared memories of the birth of the geographic information system (GIS), the enabler of our modern computer mapping and global positioning systems.
"The early days of GIS were very lonely," Dr. Tomlinson mused. "No-one knew what it meant. My work has certainly been missionary work of the hardest kind." Even in 1970, a decade after the first maps were computerized, there were only about 40 people in the world using the technology.
Upon his return to Canada from Kenya in the early 1960s, he was asked to apply his knowledge of the African country to determine a good location for planting trees to feed a planned paper mill. The plantation would have to be on a suitable slope, on appropriate land, in a location affected by the right weather conditions and with access to transportation for workers. And being in Africa, the location would have to be free of monkeys, which eat young trees, and safely away from elephant migration routes.
All that meant referring to and manually overlaying data from many different maps, and when Dr. Tomlinson priced out the project, the cost of the labour involved in correlating all of those maps was too high for the potential client.
He could see his career as a geographer in aerial survey fading away, and began to think of ways to corral those costs. One notion that came to him was that if he could put maps into a computer and get "a bunch of numbers," those numbers could be combined with those from other maps to produce compete information. So, for example, he could plot elephant migration routes on maps that also showed soil composition and weather patterns to locate a pachyderm-free plantation plot.
He hastens to add that his idea wasn't entirely new - the president of the Royal Geographical Society figured out how to digitize lines in 1870 so he could transmit shapes by telegraph. What was new was the idea of putting many maps into a computer and linking them with statistical data. He approached several computer companies for support in developing the idea.
They all said no.
That would have been that, but for a chance meeting on an airplane in 1961 with Lee Pratt, recently named head of the Canada Land Inventory.
Pratt's mandate was to develop a land use map of about one million square miles of Canada's inhabited and productive land, showing things like agricultural land, forests, wildlife, land suitable for tourism, and other uses. It would have taken 536 trained geographers working full-time for three years to accomplish the task.
There was just one tiny problem: there were only about 60 trained geographers in the country. Dr. Tomlinson told Pratt about his idea of computerizing the overlays, and three months later Pratt called to commission a technical and economic feasibility study.
The project estimate for doing the job manually was about $8-million; Dr. Tomlinson thought it could be done for $3-million on a computer. "We eventually did it for about $10-million, but that's the way programming goes," he chuckled.
In November 1962, Dr. Tomlinson published the study, and was asked to join the government and develop the system, making Canada the first country in the world to have a computerized GIS.
"Lee Pratt was a young civil servant. He didn't have to put his career on the line with unproven technology," Dr. Tomlinson said. "He was the courageous one. My work was purely self-preservation - you do things because you have to."
Now, of course, computerized GIS has become almost commonplace, and Dr. Tomlinson has received many awards, including the Order of Canada, for his work as the Father of GIS. But to him, GIS is just the beginning.
"GPS came along and put the teeth into GIS," he enthused. "A map is one thing, but knowing exactly where you are on a map is another. Except, our maps aren't good enough. I want to get to the people who made the maps and get them to change them."
"There are three legs to the stool of future development: technology, people and data," he went on. "The availability of accurate data is crucial."
For example, he said, the maps we seen on TV showing the effects of a hurricane on the land in real time can be used to determine what resources are needed in each location, how to prioritize relief aid and reconstruction, and what key points in the transportation network are broken. For pandemics of any kind, knowing where it started is vital.
"All this you can get from maps, but if they're on paper, we don't have a chance of responding in time. (With GIS technology) we now have the essential capability, and it's being used for every damned thing you can think of! The greatest block to the uptake of the technology is the lack of people - we are at least 3000 people short each year of people trained in GIS."
It's not for lack of trying. Every school in Ontario has a free GIS software package, with data supplied by DMTI Spatial, a Markham, Ontario company specializing in the business application of GIS, but the subject often doesn't get taught because of a shortage of trained teachers. "One day of GIS training in Ontario makes you a specialist," Dr. Tomlinson grumbled. "That's abominable!"
Despite the lack of people trained in GIS, he thinks the benefits of the technology, such as making it possible to market products in likely areas with pinpoint accuracy, will make it irresistible to businesses. "Within five years, if you go into a company and it's not using GIS, it will be considered a little old-fashioned," he said. "That's what our kids are going out into."
And the Father of GIS wants them to be ready.