In this paper we explore two questions that we feel are important to investigate further if geographic information observatories are to be fruitful research endeavor in GIScience. The first question is simply ‘what is a geographic information observatory (and what is it not)?’ and the second question is ‘what use is a geographic information observatory?’. The construction of large-scale geographic information observatories has the potential to be an exciting development, but it remains unclear what forms they might take. Furthermore, the reasons articulated so far for building these observatories remain largely in the domain of information science and have not been motivated in context to broader scientific problems, such as global climate change. We investigate how geographic information observatories can support science in other fields, focusing on the example of socio-ecological system research. We argue that it is in the application of geographic information observatories toward solving big problems that they can garner community buy-in and demonstrate real impact.