Dr. Roger Tomlinson (1933-2014) is generally recognized as the "father of GIS.” He is the visionary geographer who conceived and developed the first GIS for use by the Canada Land Inventory in the early 1960s. This and continuing contributions led the Canadian government to give him its highest civilian award, the Order of Canada, in 2001. Text for that award reads, “he pioneered its uses worldwide to collect, manage, and manipulate geographical data, changing the face of geography as a discipline.”
Tomlinson tells the story of how this came to be. In the early 1960s he was working as a photo interpreter for Spartan Air Services in Canada. They had a contract to identify the best location for a tree plantation in Kenya. They turned to their young geographer Tomlinson and asked him to develop a methodology. He tried various manual methods for overlaying various environmental, cultural, and economic variables, but all were too costly. He turned to computers and found the solution. Subsequently he sold this approach to the Canada Land Inventory that had the responsibility of using data to assist the government in its land use planning activities. His GIS approach reduced the task from three years and eight million Canadian dollars to several weeks and two million dollars.
He has gone on to serve the community in many ways. He chaired the International Geographical Union’s GIS Commission for 12 years, where he pioneered the concepts of worldwide geographical data availability. He is a past president of the Canadian Association of Geographers a recipient of its rare Canadian Award for Service to the Profession.
Other awards followed including the James R. Anderson Medal of Honor for Applied Geography (1995) and the Robert T. Aangeenbrug Distinguished Career Award (2005) from the American Association of Geographers. He was the first recipient of the Aangeenbrug award and also the first recipient of ESRI’s Lifetime Achievement Award (1997). National Geographic gave him its rare Alexander Graham Bell Award for exceptional contributions to geographic research (2010). He is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the recipient of multiple honorary doctorates – in addition to his own PhD from University College London.
Since 1977 he has operated Tomlinson Associates, Ltd., Consulting Geographer which has advised clients like the World Bank, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the U.S. departments of Commerce and Agriculture, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Bureau of the Census, the Canadian Forest Service, and numerous U.S. state and Canadian provincial and municipal government agencies. The Order of Canada award documents the impact of that work. “Governments and scientists around the world have turned to him to better understand our environment and changing patterns of land use, to better manage urban development and our precious natural resources.”
His book, Thinking About GIS: Geographic Information System Planning for Managers, provides guidance for both senior managers responsible for a broad range of activities in their organization and the more technical managers responsible for actual implementation of GIS. The 4th edition of this popular book was published in 2011.
A remembrance of Dr. Tomlinson was published by UCGIS on February 21, 2014.