The source of the assertion that 80% of all organisational information is geographic

The question from Jeremy Morley ‘An often quoted figure estimates that 80% of information contains some geographic reference.’ – anyone got the source reference for this?! led me to search for an answer. This assertion is indeed often quoted in governmental documents, academic papers and trade magazines.

So, what is the source? While V1 magazine suggests that it links to a magazine article from 1992, a search on Google Scholar shows that William Huxhold’s 1991 book ‘An Introduction to Urban Geographic Information Systems’ is mentioned when this factoid is used. For example, here, here or here, although the last one includes an independent assessment that uses an 80% value.

Let’s look at what was said in the original book, on pages 22-23:

‘A 1986 brochure (Municipality of Burnaby) published by the Municipality of Burnaby, British Columbia, reported the results of a needs analysis for an urban geographic information system (GIS) in that municipality: eighty to ninety percent of all the information collected and used was related to geography.’

On page 236, the following statement can be found:

‘Chapter 1 reported that 80-90 percent of all the information used by local government is related to geography.’

And the latter is probably the source of the famous statement. So for about 20 years, the GIS community has been using a powerful assertion which is actually based on a brochure and not on a rigorous analysis of evidence. Maybe, as John Fagan suggested, it wasn’t a good idea to look too closely!


15 thoughts on “The source of the assertion that 80% of all organisational information is geographic

  1. But I will point out that a more recent publication, the United States Federal Enterprise Architecture Geospatial Profile states:

    “Twenty lines of business (63%) are identified as having primary geospatial elements. In the “Services for Citizens” lines of business 74% are identified as having geospatial as a primary element. The “Services for Citizens” lines of business represent the mission areas of government and are the critical areas where the improved use of geospatial information and technology can significantly increase the ability to meet the needs of the nation’s population.”

    – page 28

    Click to access FEA_Geospatial_Profile_v1-1.pdf


    1. … and just like in the previous case: what is the source of these statistics? What methodology was used? How was ‘primary geospatial element’ defined?

      If we take ‘geospatial’ as the mix of geographical and spatial, then even the design of a rubbish bin becomes part of this definition: it is a spatial object after all.

      I would say that finding out a robust figure would be a great topic for at least a MSc project if not a PhD…


  2. The claim in that brochure may very well have been based on “rigours analysis of evidence”. The claim that it was not, however, is clearly not.

    Academics and others sometimes forget that other people do careful analyses as well. We simply do not know (yet or anymore) what kind of study produced the statement in the brochure, i.e. what the “needs analysis” involved.

    In my experience, studies by serious consultants about GIS needs in the 80’s have often been much more solid than academic claims about the same subject. So, as academics, we should be a bit careful sneering at them.


    1. Werner, thank you for your comment which is true in general, but allow me to disagree about this specific case.

      The source that Huxhold cites is a brochure titled ‘Invitation to Information’ and judging by its name, I cannot see how it would include details about the methodology of a study or detailed analysis. If it was cited as ‘user needs evaluation report’ by Tomlinson and associates, I would accept it at a higher degree, though I would then ask for further independent research to verify it in other cases.

      In addition, note that Burnaby was a municipality of 145,000 people in 1986 – so generalising from this single brochure to local government in general, and from there to central government is questionable.

      I do not criticise Huxhold – he provided proper academic citation, which allows any intelligent reader to asses the source and reach a conclusion about its robustness. I do criticise the GIS community at large who used this assertion as if it is well known and been validated in multiple studies. This includes me as well, as I have used this number in some of my classes – assuming that because it appears frequently in the literature, it has been tested. Exploring this assertion can be a very interesting MSc or PhD project.


      1. I think also the point is that apparently (from what I’ve seen from searching in literature and elsewhere) noone who quotes the figure in the GIS community has actually worried about the source and the figure is essentially apocryphal. Where a literature trail exists it only goes back to the pamphlet so one would logically conclude that the citing authors are essentially happy with that source…


      2. Well, it seems to me that you are judging a source primarily by its name. None of us have checked it, and it could very well have reported a carefully researched finding from practice.

        I agree that the vast generalizations that have then been made are hardly substantiated. Yet, I remember that similar findings had been reported in governmental reports in other countries. They may not meet scientific standards, but possibly professional ones.

        The question itself, by the way, is very hard to ask in a testable way (what exactly do you count, and what constitutes a spatial reference?).


  3. Muki,

    Thanks – I’d tracked this back the reference to William Huxhold’s book but hadn’t seen the actual pages. I quite agree that the assertion could do with proper research, though the scope of “all data” would be a difficult one to assess – such research might start with some limited types of databases!



  4. I believe that i am one of the original sources of this quote.
    About 1983, several of us at the former Metro Toronto Municipal Altas Group were looking for cost justifications for spending to link our 10mb and 20mb hard drives together. (Yes MB not GB). Everything we were doing was paper based. Lacking hard evidence for Ralph Smith, who was the City Surveyor, and director of the Central Mapping Agency, suggested that we look at what our perceptions are – We believed at that time, 80% of what we do is land related so – capital funding could come from almost any project that was land related. We developed subdivision agreements to forward a percentage of the development cost towards cost of Control Surveys, we set up sharing programs between the local governments and Metro Toronto to use common topobase maps, and other programs based on the idea that 80% of what we do is land related. Sometime between 1983 and 1988, Angus Hamilton from the University of New Brunswick was doing a study, and we note that after speaking with us, the quote became embedded in a number of academic articles. Still no real proof, but most accepted it as fact because it is so obvisous. In the late 80’s, Tom Galley from the City of Scarborough, took it one step further and actually started to test the premis from a public works perspective. I can still hear his words, “Good data leads to good decision making, and if 80% of what we do is land-related, it makes sense to improve our data gathering ability, record keeping, and as-builts. It makes sense to use GIS to organize and manage engineering data.”

    A couple other quotes that we used in the 80’s
    “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there” is actually a quote from alice in wonderland


    1. Thanks for the interesting information – I was following the citation links in the academic literature, in the hope that at the end of it I’ll find an empirical study somewhere!


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