The first ever Human-Computer Interaction and GIS research

Trying to track down the source of a term is one of the more interesting academic tasks. For example, finding out when people started researching Human-Computer Interaction and GIS is a bit like following the thread. First of all, the term Human-Computer Interaction is sometimes presented as Computer-Human Interaction, especially in the early 1980s, when it emerged – the ACM Special Interest Group still uses CHI and not HCI. Before that, the common term used was Man-Machine Interaction which was actually a term that came out of studies in the 1940s. The way to uncover this terminology chain is to find papers that mention both terms and follow it through. Quite quickly you develop an understanding of the chain…

Then there is the issue of GIS – after all, the term was invented only around the mid 1960s: surely many people outside the small circle of researchers that became familiar with the term used other terminology. So you need to look for other terms, such as geographic information (as well as geographical information), maps, etc.

Following this approach, I have found a paper from 1963 by Malcolm Pivar, Ed Fredkin and Henry Stommel about ‘Computer-Compiled Oceanographic Atlas: an Experiment in Man-Machine Interaction’. The paper is as interesting as its writers – with Pivar and Fredkin among the Artificial Intelligence group at MIT, and Stommel a leading oceanographer. The data came from surveys that were part of the International Geophysical Year (1957/8 ) – and the paper shows that information overload is nothing new.

For me, the most interesting passage in the paper is:

‘[I]n preparing a printed atlas certain irrevocable choices of scale, of map projections, of contour interval, and of type of map (shall we plot temperature at standard depths, or on density surfaces, etc.?) must be made from the vast infinitude of all possible mappings. An atlas-like representation, generated by digital computer and displayed upon a cathode-ray screen, enables the oceanographer to modify these choices at will. Only a high-speed computer has the capacity and speed to follow the quickly shifting demands and questions of a human mind exploring a large field of numbers. The ideal computer-compiled oceanographic atlas will be immediately responsive to any demand of the user, and will provide the precise detailed information requested without any extraneous information. The user will be able to interrogate the display to evoke further information; it will help him track down errors and will offer alternative forms of presentation. Thus, the display on the screen is not a static one; instead, it embodies animation as varying presentations are scanned. In a very real sense, the user “converses” with the machine about the stored data.’ (Pivar et al., 1963, p. 396)

What an amazing vision in 1963 – it would take another 30 years and even more before what they are describing became a reality!

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Professor of GIScience, University College London

One thought on “The first ever Human-Computer Interaction and GIS research”

  1. Muki

    Just reread your post, after watching the interesting video documentation of the CGIS developed by Tomlinson starting in the 1960’s.

    Altough the project represented the state of technology of that time (punchcard stacks, tape libraries and lots of heavy machinery), the documentation reveals another facet.

    In the third part of the film, one interesting scene shows a session where a User queries and controls a interactive parcel map display which holds data on productive outputs of farms.

    The demonstration shows a agricultural analyst exploring the data (a operator performed the actual operations). One can see how the two select the zoom scale of the interactive map, layers to display, as well as manipulate ancillary information and perform queries on the data. There even is the ability to select elements on screen using a lightpen!.

    One could argue that the interaction demonstrated already has most of the basic elements we are taking for granted today in a GIS, and which were referred to by Pivar et al, put in practice probably sometime in the 1970’s?

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