If you want to be good at GIS, study Calculus


A certification, a seminar, or attending a conference will not make you good at GIS. You must cultivate a way of thinking, a problem-solving mind, through the study of calculus.

Integral GIS applies geospatial methods as a lens into organized information. This view of quantitative data, which allows our clients to look at it from a slightly different perspective (instead of Excel, SQL Server, or Tableau), provides a starting point for a relatively sophisticated analysis. But as practitioners of GIS, it can be difficult to get past the abstract view to the value. One way we at Integral GIS get better at conveying it and doing it is to get in touch with our quantitative abstract, and most importantly, problem-solving skill set. To get better at GIS, we hone the problem-solving aspects of our personalities.

I think the best way to do that is to enhance the wiring in the brain that deals with three things: abstraction, quantitative, and the ability to take apart problems. Cultivating that kind of skill or talent can be done through the study of calculus. When I was a Computer Science undergraduate, the other students complained mightily about having to take the calculus series at the University of Washington. They asked the professor why they had to take it. He said, “If you want to learn how to solve problems, start rewiring your brain to do that. The best way to rewire your brain is to study calculus.” I think this is even more important for our people in the geospatial realm.

Calculus also provides a mechanism to think abstractly. We do a lot of abstract thinking in GIS. We abstract layers of information that, when combined, give a holistic picture. To get a jump start on what that holistic picture looks like involves abstract reasoning. The only way to get there is through the study of calculus. Having an algebraic skill set with abstract concepts, like the change of one variable in relation to another variable is important in formulating spatial reasoning. When you’re looking at the change of something, concentration of pollutants, or heat as it moves along a space, that kind of multivariate calculus links math to physical application in your thought process. You can extend this to simple integral calculus and infinite series. The act of studying these things allows you to better your quantitative and abstract thinking.


Patrick Moore is the President of Integral GIS and driving force behind our projects.