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What is GIS?

GIS is a powerful research and analysis tool that:

  1. Links data with geographic location and present it visually
  2. Supports the display, explore, query and analyze spatially referenced data.
  3. Assists with the identification and analysis of trends, patterns and relationships not easily spotted in tabular data.
  4. Helps solve complex problems that involve a geographic component.

GIS is a system that includes:

  1. Hardware
    • Computers, either standalone or networked
    • Servers for enterprise-level projects
  2. Software
    • Database management system (DBMS)
    • Applications for data input and manipulation
    • Applications for data querying, analysis and visualization
  3. Data
    • Can be collected independently, obtained from public sources or purchased commercially.
  4. People
    • People ask the questions!
    • People analyze information!
    • People make decisions!
    • People solve problems!

Thematic layering is a key concept in GIS analysis. Various geographically referenced elements (e.g., roads, utilities, buildings, natural features, demographic distributions, etc.) are organized into individual layers. These layers can be reorganized, manipulated, and used as input for calculations to identify trends and relationships among even seemingly disparate types of information. The phrase “A picture is worth a thousand words” is particularly apt for GIS. By visually representing layers of information, researchers can identify spatial relationships that would otherwise be extremely difficult to spot within and between tabular data. For example, one might plot crime distribution data, the location of police departments and patrol routes for a given area to identify zones requiring additional support.

GIS is dynamic, allowing the user to determine what data appears or doesn’t appear, and customize how that information displays. If a user zooms in to focus on a specific feature, the scale and detail level of the data will increase. Users can select particular map features to access details about it. They can also query the underlying database and view the results of that query in map format. As underlying data is added to or modified, the resulting mapped graphics will automatically update.

GIS is highly multidisciplinary. Data from most sciences can be analyzed spatially, and it is estimated are that 80% of all data involves a spatial component. If you think about it, there are very few topics that don’t involve some sort of spatial component.  For example:

Biology: Study the impact of construction plans on a watershed; analyze plant distribution and diversity.

Marketing: Forecast sales by store location; determine optimal retail store location; optimize delivery routes; analyze customer demographics.

Criminal Justice: Map crime rates and types to identify patterns.

Firefighting: predict spread of a forest fire using terrain and weather data.

If you’re interested in getting a sense of how GIS is being used across many disciplines and might be integrated into your own teaching curriculum, the following book is highly recommended (and available at JCKL):

Sinton, D., and Lund, J. (2007). Understanding place: GIS and mapping across the curriculum. Redlands, CA: ESRI Press.

Learn how GIS is being used on the UCM campus.

GIS is growing in importance:

  1. One of the “20 Things Info Professionals Need to Keep Their Eyes On” (Abram, 2008).
  2. Web mashups, typically incorporating GIS, are noted in the NMC’s The Horizon Report as one of the six areas of emerging technology that will have significant impact on higher education over the next one to five years.
  3. Maps in digital format are more flexible and powerful.
  4. Geospatial data and mapping services will increasingly replace traditional printed map repositories.
  5. GIS is being rapidly integrated into web environments, and will be embedded in virtually every portable device.
  6. Products like Google Earth, Google Maps, & Yahoo Maps are popularizing GIS.

Want to learn more? ESRI’s is a great place to start.

Abram, S. (2008). 20 things information professionals need to keep their eyes on. Information Outlook, 12(3), 39-41.