Why GIS is Awesome!
Updated: Jan 10, 2021
So much of what we interact with matters in part because of where it is or what is around it. We have been building tools for decades to help us understand the world. The now ubiquitous smartphone technology in our pockets and its GPS chip is as critical to their usefulness as the persistent connection to the Internet or the ability to communicate.
We use the mapping feature on the phone to understand our surroundings, find a nearby place to eat, a place to buy something, find things to do and, how your location relates to them, and then how to get there on a complex transportation network.
These are all core components of GIS. An extension of this technology that takes it out of the smartphone navigation realm and into the desktop GIS realm is to combine this information about our road networks with population information and use it to figure out where to put resources such as warehouses or store fronts for our business so that they are accessible by customers.
GIS can also help us solve other types of routing problems such as where does the water go. We know water flows downhill, but we use data to tell us where downhill is on a landscape scale. Once we have that information for an area, we can figure out where rivers form by figuring out the common locations that water runoff occurs. This can help us determine flood risk, choosing town locations, or figuring out how much water is available for an area.
A utility company might take that information and combine it with current population data and estimates for growth in a town and use it for infrastructure planning. They can then use GIS software to determine what kinds of pipes they need and where they should run to deliver their water and enable proper and efficient maintenance.
Town authorities can use GIS to help make sure it is the kind of town people want to live in by planning out the communities and making sure that growth is directed to the areas that the community wants it to be in. This is called land-use planning and it is a common GIS use. Sometimes it is urban planners who use it to map out the zones in a town where industry and commercial and residential development should occur and other times it is crowd-sourced, and the planners consult the citizens using specialized GIS software to find out how they want to see their town grow.
At the edges of these towns are farmers who are using GIS and remote sensing tools to determine how to maximize the yield of their crops by monitoring soil conditions and capturing aerial images that can help assess plant health. They can determine where they may need to increase watering or scale it back and whether they may need to amend their soil.
Meanwhile, a migratory bird uses that farm as a temporary stop-in its migration. A non-profit volunteer takes notes of what birds are in the area and records it into a spatial database. The nonprofit then builds maps that show the range of the species and these go in books and online publications to help birders and members of the public identify and connect with the birds.
In the county or state government an economist may be interested in what crops the farmer is choosing to grow to accurately estimate economic output across regions. They can use this to determine what kinds of jobs in training are needed in each area, understand how the value of that land is changing when production changes, predict tax revenue and direct funds for infrastructure. That data is also passed off to members of the emergency management agencies they keep track of incidents of floods tornadoes hurricanes and earthquakes and this information can help them estimate and prevent human and economic losses from these types of disasters.
Even with all these stories we are still only scratching the surface of what you can do with GIS but what it is exciting is that it seems like so much of the world now understands the importance of location.
There is an old saying that “You never really understand something until you understand how it relates to something you already know”.
This is the crux of spatial information. Referencing our data to other locations in the real world to almost any important fact, we can add context by knowing where something occurred. Spatial information opens a whole world of possible new questions or interesting answers when added to an organization’s other data and that is something that is rapidly occurring.
We are witnessing a generation of people growing up with location information in their pockets. There are many directions that information can take you. It will become so important to be able to analyze location data that the next generation will learn the basics of GIS the way that past generations learned how to use spreadsheets.
This is exciting and illustrates that GIS is not just one thing but a general set of technologies and a way to think about data that opens exciting new possibilities getting more interesting and more powerful every year.