Tech Innovator And Master Of Maps Dies At 80

Roger Tomlinson, the man widely regarded as the father of GIS — Geographic Information Systems — has died at age 80. Tomlinson's 1960s innovation, using computer software to overlay different types of maps on top of one another, revolutionized industry and government.

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If you've ever used something like Google Maps or a GPS device, thank Roger Tomlinson. He's widely regarded as the father of GIS, that's geographic information systems, the technology behind electronic maps. Roger Tomlinson died Sunday at the age of 80.

Georgia Public Broadcasting's Adam Ragusea has this remembrance.

ADAM RAGUSEA, BYLINE: It's hard to overstate how important this British-born geographer was to his field. But when I interviewed him last year, it didn't feel like talking to the father of an industry. More like a puckish grandfather.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

RAGUSEA: So when people call you the father of GIS, what do they mean by that?

ROGER TOMLINSON: It means I'm old.

(LAUGHTER)

RAGUSEA: Tomlinson was 27 when he went to work for an aviation company in Canada in 1960. Government aid workers there wanted to build pulp and paper mills for Kenya, which was just emerging from British colonial rule. Tomlinson's company had already done aerial surveys in Africa, so the Canadian government hired them to figure out the best location for timber plantations to feed the mills.

TOMLINSON: You sort of needed the right soil. Slope is important. You can't put plantations where you can't easily harvest them.

RAGUSEA: To think about all this at the same time, Tomlinson needed to build what he called a sandwich of the topographic and climate maps he had. At the time, this would have been done by printing the maps onto huge transparencies, stacking them on a light table and then looking down through them. But this was an aid project for a developing nation, they didn't have the budget for that.

TOMLINSON: And so I thought, if we could turn a map into a bunch of numbers, and the map on top into another bunch of numbers, and get the computer to compare those two bunches of numbers, then we've got something.

WIL COWART: GIS is important because it gives us a tool for not just seeing where things are, but how things interact.

RAGUSEA: Wil Cowart is the GIS specialist for the water authority in Macon, Georgia. He says looking at maps of pipes in a computer doesn't just let him see where the houses are above. He can watch the water move - something you couldn't do on a transparency.

COWART: So then we can start doing network analysis that says, what happens if this line breaks? Which individual customers are going to lose water if we close this valve?

RAGUSEA: Today, thousands of GIS professionals are in government and industry worldwide, and they're all walking in Roger Tomlinson's shoes. Esri, the GIS software giant where Tomlinson was a consultant, says in a statement, quote, "he was an inspiration to generations of geographers, cartographers, scientists and anyone who understood the importance of location-based analysis."

For NPR News, I'm Adam Ragusea, in Macon, Georgia.

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