The Nature of Geographic Information

2. Data

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"After more than 30 years, we're still confronted by the same major challenge that GIS professionals have always faced: You must have good data. And good data are expensive and difficult to create." (Wilson, 2001, p. 54)

Data consist of symbols that represent measurements of phenomena. People create and study data as a means to help understand how natural and social systems work. Such systems can be hard to study because they're made up of many interacting phenomena that are often difficult to observe directly, and because they tend to change over time. We attempt to make systems and phenomena easier to study by measuring their characteristics at certain times. Because it's not practical to measure everything, everywhere, at all times, we measure selectively. How accurately data reflect the phenomena they represent depends on how, when, where, and what aspects of the phenomena were measured. All measurements, however, contain a certain amount of error.

Measurements of the locations and characteristics of phenomena can be represented with several different kinds of symbols. For example, pictures of the land surface, including photographs and maps, are made up of graphic symbols. Verbal descriptions of property boundaries are recorded on deeds using alphanumeric symbols. Locations determined by satellite positioning systems are reported as pairs of numbers called coordinates. As you probably know, all of these different types of data--pictures, words, and numbers--can be represented in computers in digital form. Obviously, digital data can be stored, transmitted, and processed much more efficiently than their physical counterparts that are printed on paper. These advantages set the stage for the development and widespread adoption of GIS.