Geographic information systems (GIS) have been around for decades. These powerful mapping systems are able to integrate location-based data with a wide array of non-spatial information. Originally they were specialized, expensive programs managed by computer scientists for limited purposes. But now they are cheaper and more efficient, and can be fully integrated with the internet.

GIS Mapping Technology

Location is important. Maps have been traditionally used as visual representations of geographic points and features to aid navigation. But what if you could drill down to find out more about specific locations? What if you could compare attributes among locations, or analyze associated databases to make conclusions based on location data? These are among the purposes of GIS mapping technology.

GIS mapping not only answers the question “where?,” it also deals with the “why?” and “how?” of a geographic area. It makes interesting and helpful data available to users. It goes beyond what either flat maps or computer databases could do alone.

In general, there are three functions to GIS. First, data collection and management follow the same principles of any database system. Analysis of both spatial and non-spatial data is an integral part of the system. And lastly, display makes geographic information more accessible to human users.

The components of GIS mapping technology are five:

  • Hardware
  • Software
  • Data
  • Methods (or procedures)
  • People

The importance of people in a geographic information system should not be underestimated. People are both the creators and consumers of GIS. A large human investment in a system on the front end can make life and work so much easier for end users. The whole idea of GIS is to make data more palatable for people – not machines.

The Power of GIS Mapping

The Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) has been leading the way in GIS development. GIS science addresses the nature of geographical information. It looks to geospatial technologies to answer questions. These include global positioning systems, remote sensing and the geographic information systems themselves. (One of the most prominent uses for GPS is in cars. Learn more in Cloud Computing for Vehicles: Tomorrow's High-Tech Car.)

The potential use for GIS is extensive. ESRI founder Jack Dangermond explained at a 2016 conference in California that GIS systems can “provide a foundation for human action.” As Suzanne Hurt explained in her article on the subject, clients use GIS to:

  • Monitor air quality and forest carbon reserves
  • Manage forests
  • Plan marine protections
  • Guide agricultural development
  • Expand businesses
  • Monitor disease outbreaks
  • Develop natural energy sources
  • Plan urban development
  • Assist crime surveillance
  • Predict earthquakes and fires
  • Support peacekeeping and humanitarian missions

GIS holds special promise for local municipalities. Much of city government involves location-based management. From tracking fire hydrant maintenance to monitoring social media events, GIS offers many tools and functions that city managers need to keep things under control. Some are even using a hybrid of dedicated software and such readily available applications as Google Earth to craft their own solutions.

GIS and IT Professionals

According to Dana and David Dornsife at USC, the 6 top industries for GIS are: technology, government, advertising, medical, insurance and environment. “Technology firms are always looking for candidates with GIS knowledge to help build software,” they write. Some colleges offer coursework in the study of GIS, and software companies offer training on their systems. Penn State offers a Postbaccalaureate Certificate in Geographic Information Systems.

GIS also has potential for tech support firms. Fixed locations, like tower or switch sites, customer locations or resource facilities, could be entered into GIS maps and records to facilitate dispatch, repair and replacement. Real-time GPS tracking of truck rolls can be displayed on active maps. Layered mapping techniques might be used to help isolate issues or monitor transmission lines. GIS is adaptable to a wide variety of uses. (Learn more about towers with Telecom Tower Climbing - How Technology Is Changing the Future of America's Most Dangerous Job.)

GIS Then and Now

In the early days, GIS was a specialized tool requiring the expertise of computer scientists or other professionals. Computer mapping applications were generally in the government domain. The first true GIS was developed by the Canadian government in 1960 for forestry management. Proprietary systems were in use for decades. It was not until the internet became popular that GIS found a broader user base.

Perhaps the main reason that GIS mapping technology is becoming more prevalent now is that it has become so much cheaper. There are even free GIS software options out there to satisfy the tightest of budgets. While ESRI may be an industry leader, there are quite a few software packages on the market.

The future of GIS is very much dependent on the imagination of its developers and users. As more people become aware of the technology, more uses will be found. One project involved gathering information about every tree on a college campus. With geographic coordinates (spatial data) and information about the maintenance of the trees (non-spatial data), the grounds department was able to manage their living resources more effectively.

Conclusion

GIS can solve problems that people didn’t know they had. It can help to correlate issues with location-specific resources. It can aid in management of a campus, a customer base, a forest, a city, a country or a continent. The inclusion of GIS mapping technology in the IT toolkit is worthy of consideration.