Back to the future on World GIS day

If we’re making a journey, looking for the nearest restaurant, wanting to know what’s around us, we can simply “google map it”. That’s the easy-to-use concept that we had in mind at Agile when we developed Agile GIS for business use. We wanted to bring intuitive GIS to the desktop with a system that makes it easy for non-expert users to manipulate and visualise spatial data but at a lower cost of ownership than more “traditional” systems.

GIS is not new of course – it was first conceived back in 1962 by Roger Tomlinson of Canada’s Department of Forestry and Rural Development – but it’s only in the last decade or so that GIS systems have evolved to become sufficiently user friendly for a wider audience. If you want to make planning information available to the public for example, embed Agile GIS in your website and every site visitor can use it to explore planning proposed in their area.

In fact, maps are the very earliest application of technology, a tool used since pre-history to meet a human need. On World GIS day, we take a quick trip back in time to see how mapping has always helped us to visualise our surroundings.

Back in 1854, Dr John Snow used mapping for the first time to visualise a problem and identify a solution when he created the cholera map of London. Dr Snow understood that cholera was spread by contaminated water (not by “miasma” as people believed at the time). He proved his theory by mapping the 13 public wells and all the known cholera deaths around Soho and noted the spatial clustering of cases around one particular water pump. Having confirmed the presence of an unknown bacterium in the pump samples, he had the pump handle removed and the outbreak quickly subsided. You can see a modern day rendering of Dr Snow’s data here:

For centuries before Dr Snow’s time, the impetus for mapping was primarily the drive for wealth, the search for new resources, materials and labour. If you set out to conquer, you need a broad idea of where you’re headed although as we know, maps weren’t always that accurate. Take a look at the strange inhabitants depicted on Mappa Mundi for example or the many great examples from the Age of Exploration at

Back in time further still and, just as we use GIS today in planning and land transactions, the ancient Egyptians used geometry and simple survey techniques to redefine property boundaries erased by the annual flooding of the Nile. They’re believed to have created the earliest recorded land register in 3,000 BC, based on the same geometry for establishing boundaries and owners’ declarations that they owned the land in question.

Commercial factors and wealth creation drove the need to understand and map an area back then – just as displaying map-based property, employment and planning data can help to attract investment today.  The “Goldmine” papyrus map in the Turin Egyptology museum shows the mountains where gold and silver were mined, along with the location of the miners’ shelters, wells, and the road network that linked the region with the mainland.

And for the earliest example of mobile mapping, check out the Nebra Sky Disk, a 3,600-year-old bronze disk described by UNESCO as “the oldest concrete depiction of cosmic phenomena worldwide”.   It’s the oldest known “portable instrument”, showing the exact angle between the positions of sunset at summer and winter solstice at the site where it was found.  Some experts believe that the disk was an attempt to co-ordinate the solar and lunar calendars to tell Bronze Age Man when to plant seeds and when to make trades – so, not that dissimilar then from mobile apps for remote working today – knowing when to carry out a task in your local area …

Since the very earliest star maps from the dawn of time used by every culture worldwide, maps have been a critical tool for navigating our environment, in all senses of the word. Today, powerful but easy-to-use tools such as Agile GIS are helping our customers to make decisions on how best to plan for the future of their communities, across the critical areas of planning development and waste management.

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