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Roger Tomlinson, shown during a trip to Labrador’s Kaumaget Mountains in 1957, created the world’s first computerized geographic information system.
Roger Tomlinson, shown during a trip to Labrador’s Kaumaget Mountains in 1957, created the world’s first computerized geographic information system.

OBITUARY

Roger Tomlinson: The father of computerized cartography Add to ...

What’s the smartest location for a new coffee shop? Where do you deliver food and water in a city hit by a catastrophic earthquake? How fast are glaciers melting?

Roger Tomlinson taught us how to solve such puzzles.

An Ottawa-based geographer, Dr. Tomlinson has been called the “father” of the world’s first geographic information system (GIS), a method of computerized map-making that he pioneered in the 1960s. By combining in an interactive map not just topographic features, but other data that can be linked to specific locations (such as census findings, gas lines, nickel deposits or even beetle invasions), he revolutionized the storage and analysis of spatial information.

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Today, governments, corporations, relief organizations and many others use GIS to analyze and plan development projects, mount retail promotion campaigns, track changes to landscapes and respond to emergencies. Although Dr. Tomlinson developed his GIS insights before the advent of satellite mapping and global positioning system (GPS) receivers that put users into maps, his work paved the way for the waves of cartographic innovations that followed, including Google Maps.

Dr. Tomlinson, 80, who died on Feb. 7 of a heart attack in San Miguel de Allende, in central Mexico, once said that although he may have fathered GIS, many others were raising the child. Indeed, when he was invested as an Officer of the Order of Canada last year, the citation noted that his “landmark creation underpins virtually all spatial analysis and has enabled new questions to be asked in a wide variety of disciplines as diverse as telecommunications, epidemiology and resource management.”

Roger Frank Tomlinson was born in Cambridge, England, in 1933, but the family home was in nearby Newmarket. His father, Frank Tomlinson, was a civil engineer who served as a Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot in the First World War and an air-traffic controller in the Second World War. His mother, Lily, was a housewife.

Newmarket had an active RAF airfield during the Second World War, so, like many other children, Roger was sent to a boarding school in the north of England for the duration of the war. He was big for his age, red-haired, and frequently challenged by older boys. He learned to assert himself without engaging in a physical scrap. By early adulthood he stood 6 foot 7, had grown the beard that he kept for the rest of his life and developed a love of painting. He thought he’d be an artist.

At 18, he signed up for his mandatory three years of National Service and became, like his father, a pilot. Although he could squeeze into training aircraft, he was too tall for jets fitted with ejection seats, and was assigned to a ground-based RAF regiment tasked with providing security for airbases and other installations. He served in Northern Ireland and later Malaysia during the Malayan Emergency, a guerrilla war waged by the military arm of the Malayan Communist Party against British forces. He helped drop supplies from low-flying aircraft and tagged along on patrols to get a better understanding of what British soldiers needed from support pilots and also to help them understand what constraints pilots faced. It was an early example of what became his signature approach to problem solving: Solutions flow from understanding the needs of both recipients and providers.

By the end of his service, he had seen a great deal of landscape from the air and decided to study geography. He completed an undergraduate degree at the University of Nottingham, during which he led expeditions to the Norwegian ice cap. The offer of a scholarship from McGill University to undertake a master’s degree in glacial geomorphology brought him to Canada. His studies included field trips to Labrador and the Arctic in the late 1950s, and cemented a decision to remain in Canada. While working on his master’s at McGill, he also taught and completed a master’s degree in geology at Acadia University, in Nova Scotia.

Mr. Tomlinson was married by then, with children on the way. He and his first wife, Jocelyn, emigrated together but divorced in the early 1960s.

With the completion of his studies at McGill and Acadia, he was hired by Ottawa-based Spartan Air Services, which had been founded by three air force veterans who set up shop as aerial photographic cartographers. By then, Canada was a world leader in using aerial photos to survey and map resources; it had been doing so since the 1920s. But interpreting the photos was labour-intensive work. Trained specialists would spend days peering through magnifying loupes to identify features such as tree species by tone, shape and branching.

Dr. Tomlinson began exploring the idea of using computers – a technology still in its infancy – to do the work more efficiently. Shortly after, he encountered Lee Pratt, newly appointed head of the federal government’s Canada Land Inventory. Mr. Pratt’s agency had been tasked with developing a one-million-square-mile resource map of Canada’s inhabited and productive land.

In an interview some years later, Dr. Tomlinson explained Mr. Pratt’s challenge: “Canadian farmers were in a bad way financially … So the first question was, ‘What do we actually know about this farmland?’ We also needed to know, ‘Could the land be used for other things, such as recreation or plantations?’ ‘What does the census say about the income of these farmers?’ ‘What about their level of education?’ ‘Can we educate ourselves out of this problem?’ ”

Mr. Pratt had calculated it would take three years and the labour of more than 500 trained geographers to complete the task at a cost of $8-million. By computerizing the maps, however, Dr. Tomlinson estimated that he could do the job in weeks rather than years for less than $2-million.

With a team of designers and programmers, Dr. Tomlinson coded and scanned the aerial images and created for Canada the world’s first computerized geographic information system. It was featured in a 1967 National Film Board documentary.

With the system up and running, Dr. Tomlinson enrolled at University College London and was awarded a doctorate in 1974.

By then, Dr. Tomlinson had launched a GIS consulting company with his second wife, Lila. Together, they travelled the globe, advising international organizations and governments. Phone calls to what many took to be Tomlinson Associates’ vast, globe-spanning operation were answered by Ms. Tomlinson in their home office.

“I was his right-hand man. We lived from contract to contract. We’d finish a job in whatever country we were in and then go scuba diving or visiting the sights,” Ms. Tomlinson said.

In his spare time Dr. Tomlinson continued to paint, enjoyed photography and once played Henry VIII in a production at the Ottawa Little Theatre.

In the late 1990s, Dr. Tomlinson and Lila began spending their winters in San Miguel de Allende. There, he encountered a group working on the restoration of the badly eroded Laja River watershed. He volunteered to help, and developed a GIS program to map and track the reclamation work.

“Don’t worry about what’s in it for you,” James Boxall, head of the GISciences Centre at Dalhousie University, said Dr. Tomlinson once advised him, “worry about what you’re giving back.”

For his contributions to geography, Dr. Tomlinson was awarded the Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s Gold Medal and the National Geographic Society’s Alexander Graham Bell Medal. He is also the recipient of multiple honorary doctorates and was named companion of the Order of Canada for “changing the face of geography as a discipline.” Last year, he was promoted to Officer of the Order of Canada.

He leaves his wife of 45 years, Lila (née Blanchard); children Ward, Christopher and Frances; and four grandchildren: Christian, Benjamin, Ava and Aaron Roger.

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