Geographic information systems (GIS) have become indispensable for unlocking insights from location data. As more and more data becomes geospatially enabled, GIS provides a powerful means of visualising, analysing, and understanding patterns and trends tied to geography. In this article, we’ll deeply dive into GIS, examine how it works, and explore some key ways it can be leveraged to gain geographic insights.
What is GIS?
GIS stands for geographic information system. It is a framework for capturing, managing, analysing, and visualising spatial or geographic data. GIS integrates hardware, software, and data to help us understand trends, relationships, and patterns tied to location.
At its core, a GIS manages data with a geographic component—meaning that it incorporates location details such as latitude and longitude coordinates, address information, or administrative boundaries like cities, states, and countries. This “geospatial data” forms the foundation of GIS mapping and analytics capabilities.
Three key components make up a GIS:
This includes the core geospatial and attribute data, providing context and details about each geographic feature. For example, geospatial data may consist of the outlines of building footprints or points representing tree locations, while attribute data may contain details like building type, tree species, height, etc.
The GIS software provides tools to ingest, store, manage, analyse, and visualise geospatial data. Key capabilities include mapping, spatial analysis, data editing and geocoding. Leading GIS software packages include ArcGIS, QGIS, MapInfo, etc.
This includes computers and other devices used to run GIS software and applications. Data is stored on servers and accessed by users via desktops, laptops, tablets or other mobile devices. Specialty hardware like GPS units may also feed data into a GIS.
One of the core functions of GIS is mapping. GIS enables intelligent digital maps that convey spatial information and insights. Different types of geospatial data can be overlaid and integrated to create rich, interactive maps.
For example, by combining building footprint data, road network data, demographics data and business location data, an interactive map can be created that enables users to visualise patterns and conduct spatial analysis. GIS maps allow for pan and zoom, overlay toggle, measurements, and incorporating custom styling.
Interactive web maps built with GIS allow users to visualise data through a browser for ubiquitous access to location intelligence. GIS can also generate printed map products for reports, presentations, and archives. GIS GPS mapping.
GIS provides a diverse toolbox of spatial analysis capabilities that uncover geographic insights. Key types of GIS spatial analysis include:
- Overlay analysis – Combining disparate data layers to discover spatial relationships and trends. For example, overlaying crime data over income data may uncover correlations.
- Proximity analysis – Analyzing proximity and buffers to understand what is nearby or within a defined distance of features. Useful for location planning.
- Routing and logistics – Finding optimal routes and allocating resources based on GIS network analysis. It was used heavily in transportation and logistics.
- Interpolation – Estimating values in areas between known data points using predictive modelling algorithms. Useful for generating heat maps.
- Terrain analysis – Analyzing elevation models and terrain datasets for viewsheds, least-cost paths and more based on the earth’s surface.
These analytical capabilities make GIS invaluable for gaining actionable intelligence about geographic phenomena.
Let’s examine some of the critical applications where GIS is delivering immense value:
Urban & Regional Planning
GIS enables planners to visualise communities, model growth scenarios, assess environmental impact, optimise land usage, engage stakeholders and make data-driven decisions.
Health officials use GIS to map disease clusters, model spread, allocate resources, analyse access to care and better understand health outcomes.
First responders leverage GIS to pinpoint areas of risk, efficiently deploy resources, manage shelters, model hazards, and coordinate efforts.
Transportation & Logistics
GIS powers intelligent routing, fleet tracking, supply chain optimisation, site selection, and navigation for public and private transportation operations.
Farmers and agronomists use GIS for field mapping, crop monitoring, soil analysis, yield predictions, grading and more to improve production.
Utility companies rely on GIS to inventory assets, analyse networks, detect leaks, identify outage hotspots, assess risk and enable field workforce efficiency.
GIS helps cities, states and nations monitor climate impacts, model future scenarios, mitigate risks, and develop adaptation strategies.
Natural Resource Management
Conservation professionals use GIS to inventory and analyse aquatic, atmospheric and geologic resources and monitor ecosystems.
Law enforcement leverages GIS crime mapping and analysis to uncover patterns, optimise patrols, aid investigations, and improve community relations.
These examples illustrate that GIS delivers immense value across countless industries and use cases. The applications of GIS are far-reaching, given the proliferating amount of data with a spatial component in today’s world.
The Future of GIS
The future is brighter than ever for GIS. As location-enabled data continues expanding, GIS will play an instrumental role in unlocking geographic insights within massive spatial datasets. Technologies like satellite and aerial imagery, GPS, sensors, IoT, LiDAR, and more generate torrents of geospatial data with valuable signals to uncover.
GIS will continue advancing its 3D and 4D mapping capabilities. It will integrate with AI and machine learning for more intelligent and real-time mapping and predictions. Augmented and virtual reality will also drive immersive new ways of interacting with geographic data.
Cloud computing will enable increasing accessibility and scalability of GIS. With GIS fully cloud-native, users across organisations will be empowered to tap into its capabilities on demand. Modern GIS architecture patterns like distributed computing, microservices and containers will drive scalability.
The future points to ubiquitous location intelligence empowered by GIS. As geospatial technology advances, GIS will be at the centre, enabling users to tap into the value of location data at larger scales, higher resolution and faster speeds than ever before possible. GIS will unlock tomorrow’s geographic insights to drive breakthroughs across industries, businesses, communities and our world.