If you’ve ever used your smartphone to get directions to the nearest coffee shop, you’ve benefited from a technology known as GIS. GIS is a computer system that enables us to capture, manipulate, analyze, and visualize all kinds of geographical data.
Today we use GIS to track disease outbreaks, analyze voting tendencies, plan land development projects, and predict the impacts of climate change. In short, it has become indispensable to our modern existence.
As computers became more powerful in the 1970s, many of these modern day applications became possible. I know this because I was an early user of the technology.
I first encountered GIS in the 1970s, while completing a Geography degree at the University of Waterloo. It was quite primitive in its capabilities, in part because the computers of the day lacked sufficient power.
Back then, GIS was no more than the seed of an innovation. It needed time and cultivation to realize its full potential.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this early encounter with GIS would set me on a lifelong adventure. After graduating from the University of Waterloo, I became a systems programmer with an electrical utility that was a leader in computer technologies. With my degree and knowledge of computer graphics, I was asked to develop a new GIS application to map the distribution system for the utility.
I worked with the vendor of the day, IBM, pushing them to improve both their software and hardware so that it better met our needs. The project became an instant success and started an evolution for utilities throughout Canada.
To my surprise and delight, I quickly advanced to an international software vendor leading the advancement of GIS in government and utility areas.
While there, I was involved in a range of exciting applications. We developed national aeronautical charting systems. We digitized geological formations, utility and highway infrastructure, municipal mapping and land registry systems. We even supported the efforts of the military in defence.
It’s been an amazing journey. I feel privileged to have witnessed first hand advancements in a technology that touches every part of our lives.
I attribute much of my success to my University of Waterloo education. I was very lucky to have passionate professors who could articulate the future potential of technology.
They taught me a powerful lesson—one I think students of today can learn from. Technology is a tool—no more, no less. It is up to us to put this tool to work—to apply it to our most pressing problems and make the world a better place.
You don’t need to create a new technology to play a role in innovation. It’s equally important that people develop and improve the technology that already exists. GIS wasn’t born the world-changing technology it is today. It took people like me—working with software vendors, working for software vendors, acting as entrepreneurs—to bring its promise to fruition.
Brian Cowan is currently the Chief Strategy Officer at Value Connect Inc., a company that uses technology to improve the real estate appraisal experience for all industry participants.