It's a busy day anywhere in the world. You roll out of bed and grab your smartphone. You check a news website or a weather app or look up directions to an appointment. Most people don't think about it much, but those modern-day conveniences depend on spatial data — on maps that connect and overlay information about different aspects of the world.
That spatial data is organized using geographic information systems (GIS), computer-based tools used to store, visualize, analyze and interpret geographic data. Information about roads, topography, weather conditions, landmarks, businesses and more are organized into layers that can be combined and displayed on maps.
The ubiquity of GIS today goes well beyond your smartphone to systems used by industry — for example, to ensure products and people get where they need to go — and to various scientific applications. It helps epidemiologists map the spread of disease, ecologists understand the movement of wildlife and climate scientists understand changes in glaciers, sea levels and regional weather patterns. Furthermore, GIS assists social scientists studying global conflict and immigration and urban planners and engineers determining the best places for new development and infrastructure.
How did our GIS-dependent world and GIS-related science evolve, and where did GIS come from? It turns out the U.S. National Science Foundation played a central role in the technology's development and growth. And that support continues today: In the last two years alone, NSF has awarded about 180 grants, totaling more than $83 million, to support research related to GIS — in fields ranging from geography to math, computer science, geology, anthropology and education.