I spent a good chunk of this last weekend at Heather’s office, where they have chairs and desks purchased within the last decade — quite a difference from my own bomb-shelter steel desk at school. While there, I watched Heather do some of her work, which this weekend mostly consisted of creating and analyzing some GIS data.

Let me say that I consider myself relatively computer-savvy. I pick up concepts pretty quickly, can do some programming of a few different types, and feel comfortable with lots of different software on several platforms. So, I like to think that, you know, I get computers. But watching Heather work in GIS, well, I see that I just don’t get GIS. At all.

GIS is powerful. If you’re someone like a grass and fire ecologist, you can use it to map historical fire activity and predict the scope of future fires by hooking your GIS data into a statistical package. You can plot presence points of invasive species and build models of its future distribution. You can make really bitchin’ maps. But you first have to get it.

GIS, first of all, has this immense and complex vocabulary descended from various ways of making and describing maps, which is then crossed with technological vocabulary for rendering data: Topologies, cartographic mapping, vector- and point-based data. After a long day of cranking GIS, Heather routinely comes home and — after telling me what is wrong with the swamp cooler — speaks this foreign mapping language for thirty or forty minutes at a stretch. On top of all this conceptual complexity is the fact that the software — all of it, as far as I can tell — basically defies intuition. You’re thinking, “Hey, I like maps. They’re neat.” Well just try downloading GRASS GIS, a mature, open source GIS package, and see if you can do something with it.

The same goes for the molto-expensive GIS packages made by folks like ESRI, who seem to own much of the commercial GIS market. For example, one problem (and this reminds me of the balkanization of various open source projects) is that the complex vocabulary that I referred to earlier changes with your software package. What ESRI’s ArcView calls “themes,” ESRI’s ArcInfo calls “layers.” The same company’s package calls something by two different names! Ack. It’s madness, and try as I might, I still can’t decipher just what Heather does all day. “Maps,” I tell people. “Ah, stuff with maps.”