What is GIS and Why is it a BIG Deal?

What is GIS

In one of my articles about GIS Opportunities in Africa: the Continent NOT the Country, i confessed “each time I meet a friend and he/she asks me what we do as company! I try to stick to as basic an explanation as possible. Because I noticed each time I mentioned GIS related activities, it just got the person more confused.”

Well i feel indebted to all my non-GIS colleagues, with this article i hope to avoid the interrogation next time we meet!

What is GIS?

This is probably the most asked question posed to those in the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) field and is probably the hardest to answer in a succinct and clear manner. GIS is a technological field that incorporates geographical features with tabular data in order to map, analyze, and assess real-world problems.

The key word to this technology is Geography – this means that some portion of the data is spatial. In other words, data that is in some way referenced to locations on the earth. Coupled with this data is usually tabular data known as attribute data.

Attribute data can be generally defined as additional information about each of the spatial features. An example of this would be schools. The actual location of the schools is the spatial data.

Additional data such as the school name, level of education taught, student capacity would make up the attribute data. It is the partnership of these two data types that enables GIS to be such an effective problem solving tool through spatial analysis.

GIS operates on many levels. On the most basic level, geographic information systems technology is used as computer cartography, that is for straight forward mapping. The real power of GIS is through using spatial and statistical methods to analyze attribute and geographic information. The end result of the analysis can be derivative information, interpolated information or prioritized information.

GIS Versus Geospatial

There is an increasing trend to use the term geospatial instead of GIS. What is the difference between geospatial and GIS? Although some may use the terms interchangeably, there is a distinct difference between the two in that GIS refers more narrowly to the traditional definition of using layers of geographic data to produce spatial analysis and derivative maps.

Geospatial is more broadly use to refer to all technologies and applications of geographic data. For example, popular social media sites such as Foursquare and Facebook use “check-ins” that allow their users the ability to geographically tag their statuses. While those applications are considered to be geospatial, they don’t fall underneath the stricter definition of what makes up a geographic information system.

Other quotes to answer “What is GIS?”

“In the strictest sense, a GIS is a computer system capable of assembling, storing, manipulating, and displaying geographically referenced information, i.e. data identified according to their locations. Practitioners also regard the total GIS as including operating personnel and the data that go into the system.” ~ USGS

A geographic information system (GIS) is a computer-based tool for mapping and analyzing things that exist and events that happen on earth. GIS technology integrates common database operations such as query and statistical analysis with the unique visualization and geographic analysis benefits offered by maps.” ~ ESRI

“GIS is an integrated system of computer hardware, software, and trained personnel linking topographic, demographic, utility, facility, image and other resource data that is geographically referenced.” ~ NASA

A geographic information system is a special case of information systems where the database consists of observations on spatially distributed features, activities or events, which are definable in space as points, lines, or areas. A geographic information system manipulates data about these points, lines, and areas to retrieve data for ad hoc queries and analyses” (Kenneth Dueker,Portland State University, 1979).

GIS has already affected most of us in some way without us even realizing it. If you’ve ever using an Internet mapping program to find directions, congratulations, you’ve personally used GIS. The new supermarket chain on the corner was probably located using GIS to determine the most effective place to meet customer demand.

Why GIS is a Big Deal?

In one of our recent trainings, a student asked me why GIS is a big deal. The thing about GIS is that its a cross-cutting skill that complements many professions

There are numerous ways in which this technology can be used. The most common ones are:

  1. Management of resources
  2. Investigations of the earth’s surface that is scientific in nature
  3. Archeological uses
  4. Planning of locations and management of assets
  5. Urban & regional planning
  6. Criminology matters
  7. An Impact assessment of the environment
  8. The assessment and eventual development of infrastructure
  9. Studies of the demographics of an area plus its population
  10. Analysis with regards to engineering

Some of the common instances where you will find the GIS in use include:

  1. Emergency response teams normally use GIS when they want to collect logistics with regards to how they will move in times of natural disasters.
  2. The system also comes in handy when authorities want to discover any potential wetlands that need to be protected from the harmful effects brought about by pollution.
  3. Companies also take advantage of the GIS so that they may be able to choose a strategic market location that has not yet been saturated by other competitors in the particular niche industry.
  4. Management personnel use this system also so that they can be able to locate areas that are bound to suffer from catastrophes with regards to the infrastructure that is in place there.
  5. Any potential spread of diseases & other such like pandemic are usually limited by the use of the GIS since the patterns of their occurrence is predicted in sufficient time.

These are just broad strokes and pointers, but the application and ‘use of GIS is only limited by the users imagination” ~Jack Dangermond, ESRI

Always a pleasure reading your comments and insights.

About Author: Samuel Omara is a seasoned GIS and Remote Sensing Specialist, Managing Consultant and CEO of the company Geographic Information Solutions, we focus on GIS capacity building, Spatial data sales, Remote Sensing and Innovative data collection using smart phones. I have had the pleasure of building the capacity of several organizations and individuals in the most exciting field out there, GIS.

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