How Is GIScience Different From Geographic Information Systems?

What’s the difference between GIScience and geographic information systems (GIS)? Learn how these disciplines interact in Kent State’s blog.

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Acronyms can be confusing, especially when two abbreviations relate to the same field. An example is geographic information systems (GIS) and geographic information science (GISc). Although both acronyms are rooted in the science of geography, the roles of GIS and GISc differ.

In this guide, we’ll review the functions of geographic information systems and geographic information science, explore similarities and differences and provide examples of use cases for both terms.

What Is GISc?

Geographic information science, also known as GIScience, is a field of science that explores how to use and understand geographic data. It refers to the knowledge and research used as a foundation for geographic information systems. Moreover, GISc provides the conceptual context behind the GIS implementation process, meaning developments in GISc can lead to changes in the tools and methods deployed in GIS.

GISc relies on research and analysis to solve problems relating to multiple topics and industries. GISc professionals use, create and improve geographic information systems. Consequently, people in informational science fields have an in-depth understanding of computational languages and may specialize in various aspects of GIS. The main areas of study include:

  • Urban and regional planning
  • Cartography
  • Surveying
  • Anthropology
  • Economics
  • Political science
  • Market research and analysis

Functions of Geographic Information Science

GISc includes technical, scientific aspects while looking at how people interact with machines and the earth. Emerging elements consider implications for decision and policy-making by reviewing the potential political, societal and ethical effects.2 Short and long-term challenges for geographic information science consists of:

  • GIS and society
  • Geospatial cyberinfrastructure
  • Dynamic modeling
  • Public participation GIS
  • Spatialization
  • Geovisualization
  • GI resource management

Due to the diverse nature of GIScience and its relation to nearly any position reliant upon spatial data, GISc job roles cover many industries. Geographers can work with government agencies to explore solutions for public health or social services, transportation or economic development. In the private sector, a geographer can assist with planning, engineering and training.

What Is GIS?

Geographic information systems refer to software, hardware and processes for gathering, storing, manipulating, analyzing, managing and visualizing spatial information. Analysts use raster and vector data types during the process.3 Along with geographic data, GIS looks at attribute data, also called tabular data. This information provides details about a location, such as a site name, type, number of people who go there or other qualities that further define a spatial area. In short, GIS describes the “where” and “what” of geographical data.4

Functions of Geographic Information Systems

GIS can be applied widely across industries. For instance, utility providers rely on maps of existing systems alongside regional details about points of interest, population or service areas. When planning upgrades, providers can overlay the “what” and “where” of new infrastructure to see how it alters current equipment placement while identifying affected populations.

Additionally, corporations use GIS in marketing and business decision-making. Maps show existing sites and customers while providing demographic information required to make decisions about outreach efforts. When planning to open new locations, leaders look at GIS data to reduce cannibalization and select areas with the necessary attributes, from public infrastructure to population density.

Therefore, geospatial data gives users a clear view of locations that can be used to see how spaces and attributes change over time. Through analysis, technicians can uncover details used to solve problems and make decisions.3 Geographic information systems, such as mapping tools, allow users to determine:

  • The features of an area, from geology to demographics
  • Relationships between various elements in that space
  • The number of sites with specific attributes
  • The density of locations or features in an area
  • Potential effects to populations or buildings within an area of interest
  • Nearby factors affecting a location, such as streets or speed limits
  • Consequences of the site or feature changes affecting the earth or people

GISc Versus GIS

Although both terms relate to spatial data, the phrases can’t be used interchangeably. GIS focuses on hardware and software tools. In contrast, GISc is the science behind geographic information systems.5 GIS concentrates on the systems used for handling geographic data, whereas GISc explores “how to implement” GIS5 and answers the question “what does everyone need to know.”6

Professionals use geographic information science to fix issues stemming from GIS use, assess spatial data and refine GIS processes. Furthermore, industry breakthroughs and tool development come from the practice of GISc. Examples of GISc include:

  • Figuring out ways to improve the usability of the geographic information systems
  • Exploring options to define and track errors with GIS hardware and software
  • Utilizing scientific methods to analyze geographic data, such as quantitative or scale analysis
  • Developing agent-based or spatial models to visualize GIS data

Use Cases for GIS and GISc

Organizations deploy geographic information systems to manage and visualize data, while GIScience aims to assess, enhance and leverage spatial systems. The combination of fields supports a wide range of use cases, making spatial information science in high demand.7 With the right skill sets, professionals can move into job positions overseeing:

  • Management of corporate or government assets and resources, such as vehicles, equipment, properties and human capital
  • Delivery or provider route optimization, used in many sectors including healthcare, hospitality and education
  • Risk assessments, preparedness efforts and mitigation methods for environmental, emergency and public health concerns
  • The search for and acquisition of real estate properties meeting specific location or attribute requirements
  • The visualization of targeted marketing efforts based on spatial data, demographics, points of interest and nearby features

Master GISc Technology

The world faces significant challenges that data and technology may be able to solve. Increasingly, government and private organizations employ geoscientists with a comprehensive understanding of geographic information systems and geographic information science. If you want to enter the field or move up in your current industry, consider how Kent State University’s online Master of Geographic Information Science (GISc) program can help you reach your objectives. Set up a call with an Admissions Advisor to learn more about what you can accomplish with this program.


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He is an Associate Professor in the Evaluation and Measurement program within the College of Education, Health and Human Services at Kent State University. He is also the program coordinator for the online Master of Education degree in Research, Measurement, and Statistics.
Dr. Astrid N. Sambolín Morales is an Assistant Professor in Kent State Online’s 100% Online Master of Education degree in Cultural Foundations. She received her PhD in Educational Equity and Cultural Diversity from the University of Colorado Boulder and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research provides a more nuanced picture of the agency, resistance, and empowerment enacted by displaced Puerto Rican m(others) in the U.S., and her work was funded by several grants, including the University of Colorado Natural Hazards Center, the BUENO Center for Multicultural Education, the URBAN Research Network, and the NAEd Spencer Foundation.
Felesia McDonald, ’14 is an adjunct instructor in the iSchool, teaching courses in the 100% Online Master of Science in User Experience. McDonald is also the Sr Manager UX Design at Optum, a branch of UnitedHealth Group.