Academic journal article Cartography and Geographic Information Science

The Illinois Resource Information System: Early Innovations in Geographic Information System Design

Academic journal article Cartography and Geographic Information Science

The Illinois Resource Information System: Early Innovations in Geographic Information System Design

Article excerpt


During the 1970s, when GIS was In its childhood, researchers in several states compiled geographically referenced databases and wrote special-purpose software to manage, query, and map this information. Warnecke (1998, p. 267) characterized this decade as one of "innovation, risk, and rapid technological change and experimentation with GIS." Though significant initial investments were made in these early systems, they were often abandoned when it became evident that there was a mismatch between their capabilities and user needs (Dueker 1979; Mead 1981). For example, LUNR (Crowder 1972; Hardy and Shelton 1970; Tomlinson et al. 1976) was developed in New York using 1 [km.sup.2] cells as its basic spatial unit, even though accurate high resolution (spatial and attribute) Mylar overlays for 7.5 minute quadrangles were created as part of the project (Shelton 1968).(1) Other state systems such as MLMIS (Minnesota Land Management Information System) and MAGI (Maryland Automated Geographic Information System), as well as national (CGIS) and regional systems (e.g., ORRMIS) have been well documented in articles, chapters, and other compendia (e.g., Dueker 1979; Hsu et al. 1975; Power 1975; Tomlinson et al. 1976). As a consequence, these systems, along with early developments at Harvard University, are frequently mentioned when the history of GIS is recounted (see e.g., Chrisman 1988; Dangermond and Smith 1988; Foresman 1998).

Those reporting on the history of GIS often have had careers spanning several decades (e.g., Tomlinson 1970; 2003; Peucker and Chrisman 1975; Chrisman 2002). The experience of these long-established researchers enables them to provide a context for the technical and theoretical innovations they describe. It is noteworthy, however, that during the early stages of GIS development some projects were initiated by researchers who, after designing and implementing systems, left the GIS arena for other pursuits. These "orphaned" projects are, consequently, disconnected from the main historical narrative. The purpose of this paper is to bring to light one such system, called IRIS (Illinois Resource Information System). IRIS was developed by a group of computer scientists who never documented its workings in the GIS literature of that era (consisting mostly of conference proceedings). IRIS innovations are, therefore, effectively unknown. This is unfortunate because IRIS possessed an interesting set of characteristics that merit further elucidation.


Like most other states, Illinois around 1970 faced a host of changes in the way the environment was conceptualized and managed by government agencies. With the passage of legislation that mandated responsibility for specific types of environmental stewardship (see Dueker and Drake 1972; Mead 1981), several new state-level agencies were established, including, for example, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. These changes had the additional effect of broadening the scope of state-level data collection activities. Rapid improvements in computer data handling were taking place around the same time. Faster and ever more capacious mainframe computer systems from IBM, Burroughs, and DEC, among others, were becoming affordable to a range of government agencies and universities. The mandated need for information about the environment, together with technological advances in computing, spurred a number of state and federal agencies to begin the process of implementing GIS technology during the 1970s (Mead 1981). At that time, however, there were no spatial data standards, there was no GIS software industry to speak of, and there was little in the way of a scientific literature. Consequently, though a great deal of innovation took place, design features (and failures) were not well documented, and a considerable amount of re-invention took place.

IRIS was the product of a group of computer scientists working at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. …

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