What is GIS? Geographical Information Systems Mapping explained (with examples)

By
Laura Tolson
October 31, 2023

In this article, we will be digging into Geographic Information Systems (GIS) so that you can quickly get a baseline knowledge. At swyvl.io we live and breathe spatial data, AI and mapping every day.

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What is GIS?

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are an amalgamation of software, hardware, and data designed to capture, analyze, manage, and present spatial or geographic data. GIS technology integrates common database operations such as query and statistical analysis with the unique visualization and geographic analysis benefits offered by maps. This powerful tool enables users to understand patterns, relationships, and geographic context in their data, leading to more informed decisions.

Definition of GIS

A Geographic Information System is a framework for gathering, managing, and analyzing data.

It is rooted in the science of geography and incorporates a variety of tools to analyze and visualize geographic information. GIS helps users make sense of patterns, relationships, and situations, enabling them to make smarter decisions. It analyzes spatial location and organizes layers of information into visualizations using maps and 3D scenes, providing a comprehensive way to understand data.

Components of GIS

There are five key components, each playing a crucial role in its functionality:

A Geographical Information System is comprised of five components: Data, Hardware, Software, People and Methods.

By understanding how these components work together, one can appreciate the versatility and power of GIS. Each component is crucial; without accurate data, the analyses would be unreliable. Without the necessary hardware and software, it would be impossible to process and visualize the data. The people and the methods they employ are indispensable for transforming raw data into actionable insights.

Data

The most crucial component of GIS is the data, both spatial and attribute. Spatial data pertains to the location of objects, while attribute data provides details about them.

  • Spatial Data: This includes geographic coordinates that pinpoint locations on the earth's surface. Examples include data about the location of roads, rivers, and buildings
  • Attribute Data: These are the details associated with spatial data. For a road, this could include its name, length, or the type of road.
Real-world application: In agriculture, GIS data helps farmers analyze soil data to optimize planting patterns and increase crop yield.

Hardware

Hardware refers to the physical components required to run the system, including computers, servers, network devices, and GPS units.

  • Computers and Servers: Needed for processing and storing large amounts of geographic data.
  • GPS Units: Essential for collecting accurate location data.
Real-world application: In wildlife conservation, GPS collars on animals and computers for data analysis are used to track movements and study patterns.

Software

GIS software provides the tools necessary for spatial analysis, data management, and visualization.

  • Desktop: For in-depth spatial analysis and map creation.
  • Web: Provides accessibility to GIS data and tools through the internet.
Real-world application: Urban planners use GIS software to analyze spatial data for city development and infrastructure planning.

People

The individuals who operate and manage the systems, including GIS analysts, technicians, and developers, are crucial.

  • GIS Analysts and Technicians: They analyze spatial data and create maps.
  • Developers: They customize and extend GIS software functionalities.
Real-world application: In disaster management, teams of professionals analyze data to plan evacuation routes and locate shelters.

Methods

These are the procedures and techniques used to analyze spatial data and solve real-world problems.

  • Spatial Analysis: Involves the examination of the locations, attributes, and relationships of features in spatial data.
  • Data Management: Ensures the accuracy and accessibility of GIS data.
Real-world application: In public health, methods of spatial analysis are used to identify disease hotspots and manage outbreaks.

What is GIS used for?

GIS has a wide array of applications, ranging from solving complex problems to understanding trends and making predictions.

Identifying Problems

A Geographic Information System aids in pinpointing issues within specific geographic areas. For instance, it can help identify crime hotspots, pollution sources, or areas prone to natural disasters.

Map showing crime heatmap.

Monitoring Change

GIS is pivotal in tracking changes over time, aiding in urban planning, environmental monitoring, and resource management.

Managing and responding to events

In emergency situations, GIS plays a crucial role in disaster management and response coordination, providing real-time data for quick decision-making.

System used to show current emergency warnings.

Forecasting

GIS is used to make predictions based on historical data and trends, aiding in various sectors such as weather forecasting, market analysis, and resource allocation.

Understanding Trends

GIS helps in identifying and understanding trends in data, facilitating better policy making, strategic planning, and resource management.

Who uses GIS?

It is utilized by a diverse range of professionals and industries for various purposes.

Job roles that use GIS

  • Cartographers: Create maps and spatial information products.
  • Urban Planners: Plan and manage urban areas, considering various spatial factors.
  • Environmental Scientists: Study and manage natural resources and ecosystems.
  • Emergency Responders: Use GIS for disaster response and management.
  • Transportation Planners: Plan and optimize transportation routes.

These roles leverage GIS to enhance their productivity and make more informed decisions.

Industries that use GIS

GIS technology finds its applications across various industries, solving real-world problems, optimizing processes, and enhancing decision-making.

Environmental Management

  • Forestry: helps in mapping forest areas, analyzing forest conditions, and planning logging operations to ensure sustainable practices.
  • Wildlife Conservation: GIS tracks animal movements, monitors habitat changes, and aids in the conservation of endangered species.

Urban Planning and Real Estate

  • City Planning: GIS assists in land use planning, zoning, and infrastructure development, ensuring optimal urban growth.
  • Real Estate: analyzes spatial data to help in property valuation, site selection, and market analysis.
Example of a system showing property value information

Transportation and Logistics

  • Route Optimization: GIS finds the most efficient routes for transportation, reducing costs and improving delivery times.
  • Traffic Management: monitors traffic conditions, aiding in congestion management and road safety improvement.

Healthcare and Public Health

  • Disease Surveillance: GIS maps disease outbreaks, helping in quick response and resource allocation.
  • Facility Location: assists in determining optimal locations for hospitals and clinics to ensure accessibility.

Agriculture

  • Precision Farming: analyzes soil and crop data to optimize planting patterns and irrigation, enhancing crop yield.
  • Livestock Management: GIS tracks the movement and health of livestock, aiding in disease control and resource allocation.

Emergency Management and Public Safety

  • Disaster Response: GIS helps in planning evacuation routes, locating shelters, and allocating resources during disasters.
  • Crime Mapping: analyzes crime data, helping law enforcement identify hotspots and allocate resources effectively.

Energy and Utilities

  • Resource Exploration: aids in identifying potential sites for resource extraction, ensuring sustainable practices.
  • Utility Management: GIS manages utility networks, aids in outage management, and ensures efficient service delivery.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about GIS

What types of data does GIS use?

GIS leverages a comprehensive range of data types to provide detailed geographic analysis and visualization. Spatial data, which pertains to the specific location information of objects on the Earth’s surface, and attribute data, which provides descriptive information about those objects, form the core of GIS data.

How does GIS differ from GPS?

While both GIS and GPS deal with geographic information, they serve distinct functions and operate differently. GIS is an extensive system designed for capturing, storing, analyzing, and managing all types of geographical data, whereas GPS is a technology that focuses on providing precise real-time location and navigation information.

Can GIS be used for indoor mapping?

Yes, the capabilities of GIS extend into the realm of indoor mapping, providing valuable tools for facility management, navigation within large buildings, and enhancing emergency response strategies by giving first responders vital spatial information in indoor environments.

Is GIS only used for maps?

Although GIS is widely recognized for its mapping capabilities, its uses go far beyond creating maps. It encompasses data analysis, visualization, and decision-making across various contexts and sectors, demonstrating its versatility and indispensable nature in today’s data-driven world.

How is GIS changing with advancements in technology?

The landscape of GIS is continuously evolving, propelled by advancements in technology such as cloud computing, big data, and machine learning. These developments have enabled systems to handle larger and more complex datasets, perform advanced analytics, and offer real-time data processing and visualization, thus expanding its applications and enhancing its utility in various fields.

Conclusion

By providing a comprehensive overview of GIS, its components, applications, and users, we enlighten readers about the immense capabilities and benefits of GIS technology. Whether you’re a professional looking to leverage GIS in your field, a student exploring geographic sciences, or a curious individual interested in understanding how spatial analysis impacts our world, GIS offers invaluable tools and insights for a myriad of applications.

Additional Resources

Learn more about GIS on Udemy

Esri offer free Massive Open Online Courses each year on this and many other topics

Laura Tolson
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