Geospatial words

Using the Ngram Viewer by Google which plots the annual “cultural and professional trending vernacular within published literature”. For more details on the Viewer check out this link.  As with all things Google, the database behind the Viewer is vast and continues to grow. The sources used to power the analyses are “textbooks and fiction along with digital publications [allowing] insight into trends in culture as well as technologies”. The plots only extended as far as 2008 when I looked into them, so it doesn’t capture the most recent changes but does give an insight into modern trends.

First off, I thought I would look to see what changes there have been in the use of the terms ‘remote sensing’ and ‘GIS’. The plot below shows the expected trends, with ‘remote sensing’ becoming more used throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. ‘GIS’ really started to be referenced from the mid to late 1980s and certainly continued to be a phase more widely used well into the new century. I’m surprised that ‘remote sensing’ hasn’t shown a rise in years post 2005 (maybe it would do for years post 2010) as the recent boom in the use of satellite imagery and drones suggests that there is a wider interest in the subject. The decline in the popularity of ‘GIS’ as a term post 2000 is also interesting. I suspect that one reason for the trends in both lines is the rise of ‘web mapping’, where the concept of ‘GIS’ or ‘remote sensing’  is less critical i.e. it’s just data on the web.


Next, I thought I would have a look at different data types. The chart below shows the trends for the use of ‘aerial photograph’ and ‘satellite image’. Both plot lines show easily explainable trends – ‘satellite image’ increases as more systems become active and remote sensing moves to using (and writing about) those data sources, whilst aerial photography is an established (and still important) method of data collection. The peak between 1975 and 1985 might show the rise in the popularity in remote sensing as a discipline and the subsequent increase in text books on the subject, most of which would be focussed on aerial data collection at the time.


Finally, I thought it would be interesting to investigate the occurrence of words related to sensor types. The third plot shows the steep rise in references to ‘hyperspectral’ data and sensors since the mid 1990s, whilst ‘multispectral’ shows the expected increase in the 1970s and then flattens off as the technology becomes standard. It’s surprising that there isn’t a second increase around the year 2000 once the commercial satellites started to be launched more frequently. The line that interests me most on this plot is that for ‘LiDAR’. I can understand the rise around the year 2000, as laser systems really started to be applied to more and more situations, but the increase from 1965 through to 1985 is something that I can’t easily explain…. it must have been a very fledgling technology at that time.


This has been a brief and simple assessment of certain words linked to remote sensing technologies, and I hope it has been of interest. It will be interesting to redo the analysis in 5 or 10 years time and see where the trends have moved to!

This blog post is based on ideas that I originally saw published in an article by Eric Morris in LiDAR News, Vol 4 No 6, 2014. In the original piece Eric was discussing the change in use of the spelling of LiDAR and words related to laser-scanning.