GIS Potential Through Metadata and Access Protocol

Featured on, September 2000


In today's Geographic Information Systems (GIS) culture, a debate about the nature of GIS is raging. GIS practitioners like Stan Openshaw claim that GIS is transforming the discipline of geography, because GIS offers 'an ... all-embracing implicit framework capable of integrating all levels of past, present, and possible future geographies' (Openshaw 1991: 628). Yet others claim that GISs are only tools, perhaps bad tools, because they are 'simply big black boxes, slick, simple and utterly incapable of dealing with the sort of matters that are truly important' (Curry 1994: 441-442).

This paper embraces these assertions and offers a point of view dealing with the following question: is GIS simply a tool to be used within one discipline or is it a new way of looking at the world which integrates information and frameworks from many disciplines? This paper also deals with using metadata as a documentation tool to augment data access frameworks.


GIS, metadata, data access, protocol, frameworks, information technology, computer science


Tom Kralidis
GIS / Systems Specialist

About the Author
This article:
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Original Publication Date: 22 February 2000


Somewhere in the informatics revolution lies GIS, a hybrid application of computer science and geographic theory, helping us perform thorough spatial analysis on aspatial information, deriving intelligent maps for decision making / makers. There is a rampant issue developing in GIS culture: does GIS give us an innovative look at issues, influencing our ideas, thoughts and choices, or is it simply a means of deriving the information we are looking for within our project(s), powerless in 'important decisions'? Does it offer an environment where multi-discipline frameworks can be integrated and fit?

This paper will convey the potential of GIS across multi-discipline applications and datasets, given a metadata framework, network and protocol. Metadata can unify ideas and data, enabling us to make 'smarter' decisions in less time. Strong metadata implementation and protocol development can provide a unifying framework, where data can fit and foster new decision making capabilities.

Metadata Potential

Numerous organizations, government agencies, and consulting firms create, handle and process data in some manner; patient dental records, potato chip sales, socio-economic information, etc. All data, information, notes, papers, and transcripts have one common property: geographic attribute, absolute or relative. Virtually all information has the ability to transfer geographic properties. The key to efficient data transfer is to share and be aware, promoting the data to information to knowledge paradigm. These variables can make GIS a powerful information-processing component, applicable across numerous disciplines. Let's put the aforementioned examples into a GIS environment under two scenarios: without and with metadata, networking and protocols.

Simple Paradigm

Without Metadata

Imagine each organization wishes to implement a GIS using their data. The dentist's office would like to map out the location of their patients, with hotlinks to their dental records, to assess where their patients live. A GIS can help the organization assess whether there is a relationship between a patient's address and their dental records, such as if better dental hygiene exists in more affluent areas. Following this analysis, the organization may feel the GIS has served its purpose and cannot integrate anymore information. The data is archived, with no maintenance or updates for the GIS.

The chip company would like to map out quarterly sales in attempts to capture a niche market, and perhaps eliminate non or lower profit delivery routes. The GIS successfully completes this task and the data is archived. The project leader leaves for another career opportunity, leaving his or her replacement with no documentation on the study or data.

The census collects socio-economic data of the entire Canadian landmass for archival / statistical purposes. The project is complete; the records are somehow misplaced, and never recovered.

All three applications have served their purpose relative to the client's requirements. All three firms decide that a GIS is not economically feasible to maintain in the long run and terminate their GIS applications. In the real world, the growing emergence of GIS consulting firms working on short-term projects is a result of this issue.

With Metadata

Taking the pro-metadata approach can yield different results. Suppose the dentist's office, chip company and census decide to document their data with a metadata standard. Metadata (data about data) covers such aspects as data quality, content, condition and state. All three organizations now have fully documented and standardized datasets. The data is registered with a metadata clearinghouse using a common framework and access protocol. At this point, all three can search the clearinghouse to query for data they may find useful. A GIS analysis could result in the dentist discovering that patients with the poorest dental hygiene live in areas with higher than average chip sales and vice-versa. The census can apply a GIS to discover if dentists located in affluent areas charge their patients higher than average fees.


A GIS is a powerful framework that can make new decisions and new thinking possible, encompassing, layering and unifying many data sources to find new relationships. Metadata standards increase the value of data by data sharing through time and space. The key is developing a framework for GIS to prosper in. The Federal Geographic Data Committee has created a metadata standard (v3.0 as of ISO acceptance), and a standard protocol (z39.50) for users to access data clearinghouses. A high importance should be placed on data awareness and clear, concise, exhaustive documentation. US federal departments do not fund projects without proper metadata implementation and maintenance. Consider the following equation:

(Data + metadata + z39.50 development) * user awareness and sharing =
new, quick, powerful, smart decisions and analysis

These factors, along with rapid technology developments and decreasing cost of computer hardware / software, can lead us to developments in geographic thought, theory and analysis. People may come and go within an organization, but data should stay.

We have the tools, the knowledge, and the technology, now give us the data!


Babish, Gregg (2000) 'An Introduction to Metadata Standards', Proceedings, EMAN 6th Annual National Science Meeting, January 2000, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Curry, Michael R. (1994) 'Image, practice and the hidden impacts of geographic information systems' Progress in Human Geography 18:4, 441-459

Openshaw, Stan (1991) 'Commentary: A view on the GIS crisis in geography, or, using GIS to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again' Environment and Planning A 23, 621-628

Smith, Neil (1992) 'History and philosophy of geography: real wars, theory wars' Progress in Human Geography 16:2, 257-271

Metadata Links

Canadian Initiatives

11 September 2000

This article is the property of Tom Kralidis (c) 2000. All rights reserved. Any copying or reproduction of the article in whole or in part without the author's authorization is strictly prohibited.