Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Connects Geography with Data
Every day, millions of decisions are being powered by Geographic Information Systems (GIS)…
From pinpointing new store locations… to predicting climate change… to reporting power outages… to analyzing crime patterns.
You might be wondering: But why use GIS?
Because geographic problems require spatial thinking.
In a GIS, you connect data with geography. And you understand what belongs where. Because you don’t fully understand your data until you see how it relates to other things in a geographic context.
What is the definition for GIS?
Never in the history of mankind have we had more pressing issues in need of a geospatial perspective. These global issues require pervasive, complex, location-based knowledge that can only come from a GIS.
Long story short:
Geographic Information Systems really comes down to just 4 simple ideas:
- Create geographic data
- Manage it.
- Analyze it and…
- Display it on a map.
These are the primordial functions of a GIS.
Visualize Data by Making Spreadsheets Come to Life
I think you’ll agree:
It’s REALLY hard to visualize the locations of latitudes and longitudes coordinates from a spreadsheet.
But when you add these positions on a map, it’s like magic to the reader.
Everyone knows that maps make geographic information easier to understand.
So what exactly do you need to make your spreadsheets (and other spatial information) come to life?
You need HARDWARE such as a GIS workstation. Actually, it could be anything from powerful servers to mobile phones. The CPU is your workhorse and data processing is the name of the game. In addition, GIS analysts often need dual monitors, boatloads of storage and crisp graphic processing cards.
Lastly, you need SOFTWARE. Really, the GIS software options out there seem endless. From ArcGIS, QGIS, GRASS GIS, SuperGIS, SAGA GIS to JUMP GIS… The range of GIS products to choose from can get a bit “ridiculous” at times. But this list of free GIS sofware will help.
READ MORE: Mapping Out the GIS Software Landscape
Drive Decision-Making in Real World Applications
Most people think GIS is only about “making maps”. But governments, businesses and people harness the power of GIS because of the insights of spatial analysis.
Before GIS, cartographers mapped out the land using paper maps. Over the years, we’ve seen a gradual shift away from paper maps. Instead, users build digital maps with computer-based spatial data.
And the more you think of it:
Some of the largest problems of our planet are best understood spatially. For example, climate change, natural disasters and population dynamics are all geographic in nature.
How do you solve problems in a GIS? The answer is through spatial analysis which understands relationships between spatial and attribute data.
Spatial analysis examples:
A: Run a clip on land cover classification. Sum the area of forest grid cells.
A: Run a buffer. Calculate the number of species in the buffer.
Manage Geospatial Data for Cost-Efficiency
There’s nothing more painful than drawing by-hand thousands of features on paper maps. But this is how it use to be.
Spatial analysis is impossible, querying is unimaginable and don’t even think about turning off a layer on a paper map.
GIS stores information about the real world as thematic layers. Of course, these layers are all linked by their geographic coordinates. As a result, we save cost because of greater efficiency in record-keeping and can make powerful spatial analysis with ease.
How does Geographic Information Systems capture real world features? Actually, GIS data is stored as rasters (grids) and vectors.
Rasters often look pixellated because of its square gridded look. They are store data in rows and columns (grid) and can be classified as discrete and continuous.
Vectors can be points, lines and polygons and are generally smooth, rounded features. For example, cities, fire hydrants, contours, roads, railways and administrative boundaries are often represented as vectors.
Build Your Career in Geomatics
If you thought a career in GIS meant only making maps, you’d be wrong.
From planning a pipeline to navigating ships, spatial problems need spatial thinkers. This is why Geographic Information Systems has expanded into countless other disciplines.
Tech-savvy employers expect the complete package of GIS skills. Now, GIS need skilled workers in multiple skill sets. For example, it’s helpful to learn programming, remote sensing, surveying, databases or web development.
- Cartographers create maps. Actually, the origin of the job title comes from charta which means “tablet or leaf of paper” and graph ”to draw”
- Database managers store and extract information from structured sets of geographic data.
- Remote sensing analysts use satellite or aerial imagery to map the Earth.
- Spatial analysts manipulate, extract, locate and analyze geographic data.
- Land surveyors measure the 3-dimensional coordinates on the land.
GIS All Started by Mapping Cholera
When you look at an old map, it’s like you are traveling back in time.
A map not only shows geography, but paints a story of importance or struggle.
In 1854, spatial analysis began when cholera hit the city of London, England. Because no one knew how the disease started, British physician John Snow began mapping outbreak locations. But he also located roads, property boundaries and water lines.
When he added these features to a map, something interesting happened. He noticed how Cholera cases were commonly found along one of the water lines.
It was a major event connecting geography and public health safety. Not only was this the beginning of spatial analysis, it also marked the start epidemiology, the study of the spread of disease.
But it actually wasn’t until 1968 when GIS evolved into using computers:
Roger Tomlinson first coined the term “Geographic Information System” in his paper “A Geographic Information System for Regional Planning”. At this point in time, GIS truly became a computer-based tool for storing map data.
In 2014, Roger Tomlinson later passed away and will always be remembered as the “father of GIS”.
READ MORE: The Remarkable History of GIS
80% of Data is Geographic
Unbelievably, GIS is being integrated in almost every discipline:
Amongst the group, environmentalists are the heaviest users. For example, climate change, groundwater studies and impact assessments are primarily GIS based. While agriculture maps out crop/soil types and use precision farming, in forestry, they use it for timber management, tracking deforestation and forest inventory.
More on the business side of things, GIS is used for site selection, consumer profiling and supply chain management. In real estate and land planning, GIS professionals use comparative analysis, location-based platforms and parcel-based planning. Also, it’s common to use GIS in the media to communicate stories with maps and target advertising campaigns.
Lastly, the military and defense are heavy GIS users pertaining to location intelligence, logistics management and spy satellites. Additionally, police use it for investigative analysis, in-vehicle mobile mapping, predictive policing. For public safety, GIS can visualize the spread of disease, disaster response and public health informatics.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. For example, archaeology, social work, transportation, education and water resources use GIS in some shape or form.
You’re looking at 20 professions who have adopted GIS technologies.
GIS and Remote Sensing in Wildfire Response
Back in August 2013, a wildfire hit Yosemite National Park, California. All said and done, experts estimated the extent of the fire to be 15 times the size of Manhattan island. Of all fires in California history, it was the fourth largest.
- How was GIS used to respond to this wildfire?
- And how did responders use Geographic Information Systems?
In this step, you ask a high-level question. This high-level question will guide you to obtaining the correct data, performing the analysis and examining the results.
As a land manager in Yosemite during a wildfire, how can we track the severity and effects of the wildfire? How can we monitor the recovery of the land?
You can acquire satellite imagery and inspect the extent of the wildfire. Also, what other data could be useful such as roads, infrastructure and trails?
Satellite data can display where vegetation is, which of course is fuel for the fire. If you can model fire behavior, you can map potential risks to communities and determine post-fire effects.
In order to respond to the wildfire, communicate the best plan of attack to wildfire responders. After this wildfire, it’s beneficial to plan for future emergency by providing timely, accurate and relevant geospatial information as a data portal. Also, you can serve webmaps to fire managers with real-time fire perimeter data.
What Can GIS Do For You?
Geographic Information Systems answer important questions about location, patterns and trends.
- Where are land features found? includes points, lines, polygons and grids. If you need to find the closest gas station, GIS can show you the way. Or if you want to find an optimal location, you may need traffic volumes, zoning information and demographics.
- What geographical patterns exist? Ecologists who want to know suitable habitat for elk can gain a better understanding by using GPS collars and land cover.
- What changes have occurred over a given period of time? Never have we’ve been able to understand climate change before thanks to GIS and remote sensing technology. Also, safety concerns can be better evaluated using GIS such as understanding terrain slope and the probability an avalanche can occur.
- What are the spatial implications? If an electricity company wants to build a transmission line, how will this affect nearby homes, the environment and safety. Most environmental assessments use GIS to understand the landscape.
You might ask yourself:
Haven’t geographers been answering these questions for centuries?
Yes, they have. But in the most part, geographers have not been able to answer these questions very well because of the lack of data and processing.
Mapping the Future with Geographic Information Science
Paper maps will be completely obsolete in 10 years.
Bold statement? Definitely.
But take a step back and ask yourself:
How will GIS grow in upcoming years?
This is a question that is best understood with Geographic Information Science.
Geographic Information Science provides all the building blocks for Geographic Information Systems. It draws from computer science, mathematics, geography, statistics, cartography, and geodesy. GIScience incorporates the knowledge from these fields into Geographical Information Systems.
- Geographic Information Systems connects what with the where.
- Geographic Information Science discovers how.
In summary, Geography Information Science conceptualizes the collection, storage and analysis of spatial data in a Geographic Information System.
Why GIS is not going away anytime soon
Geographic Information Systems allows us to make better decisions using geography.
Analysis becomes simple.
Answers become clear.
Everyday GIS makes an impact on your life and you might not even realize. For example, your car uses GPS navigation and your job may depend on really accurate weather prediction. Overall, GIS helps us analyze the world because it best understands geography.
Cartographers, spatial analysts, surveyors, programmers and remote sensing analysts are GIS-based professions. According to a study awhile back, 80% of data is location-based.
When the natural resources community first started recording inventories on paper maps, it was quite a tedious process. But what did it really need?
A spatial database to record their observations. In addition, it needed a table to store attributes about the data.
What’s the bottom line?
Viewing and analyzing data geographically impacts our understanding of the world we live in.
Williams, Robert (1987), Selling a geographical information system to government policy makers. Papers from the 1987 Annual Conference of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association