Technology, at its core, is utilitarian. But when combined with design, it can change systems and create far-reaching impact. A perfect example: geospatial technology as a tool in sustainable development. It’s in this “playground” where Geographic Information System (GIS) plays a significant role.
GIS, in the simplest of terms, is digital mapping. It combines location data with other databases to identify and analyze specific patterns and information. GIS “empowers the transformation of how people make decisions,” says Esri founder Jack Dangermond. He sat down with Simone Ross in an interview for TED Salon to discuss how GIS, or location data, works hand in hand with sustainable development.
When the first few cases of COVID-19 were discovered in Wuhan, China in December 2019, Chinese scientists were baffled. They scrambled to know what exactly was causing the then unknown disease that resulted in severe pneumonia. As soon as scientists from Shanghai identified the genome sequence of the virus, they immediately published their findings for the global scientific community to study. Using geographic information, Johns Hopkins created a dashboard that tracks the pandemic. These efforts paved the way to further scrutinize how the virus spreads and, ultimately, formulate vaccines. Acquiring information in the shortest time possible is an extremely crucial advantage in battling COVID-19.
Making all the necessary data readily available and accessible is essential in finding solutions to the pressing problems we face today. Enter web-based GIS, a tool that allows for easier collaboration between different organizations. Prior to this technology, GIS is limited only to desktop applications. Now, web-based GIS makes it possible to store integrated information in one location on the web (i.e., a portal). This serves as a framework housing a wealth of data, allowing various agencies to share information that others can use as reference. Explains Dangermond, “Any of the different departments, whether they be law enforcement or… science, climate change, biodiversity, all of that series of issues that we’re facing today can be enriched by not only bringing together the information in real-time measurement seen on maps, but also integrating those like using spatial analysis or location analysis to look at the relationships and patterns.”
Technological advancements in the recent decades have made GIS more relevant and accessible. Public and private organizations are now able to take advantages of location analysis to help with their respective operations. “They can look at the whole, not just one factor, not just making money, not just conserving land, not just this or that. It’s optimizing many factors at the same time,” relates Dangermond on how GIS is employed.
Businesses, like Starbucks, Walmart, and Walgreens, use GIS to pick their next location. Insurance companies employ it for risk assessment, while government agencies rely on geospatial analysis for public health and safety. This is deftly demonstrated by countries like Singapore, China, South Korea, and Israel, who took advantage of location data in their contact tracing efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Geospatial analysis also plays an important role in disaster response, mitigation, and recovery. The efforts to mitigate the flooding in one region in the Philippines illustrates this. The areas around Laguna Lake in Luzon, Philippines have been hounded by flooding whenever typhoon season rolls in. Houses get submerged, public transportation is crippled, and the local fishing industry bears the brunt of this natural disaster.
To address this persistent predicament, a proposal to construct a spillway is in the pipeline. The spillway will divert the overflow of water from Laguna Lake to Manila Bay, therefore sparing the affected areas from future inundation. Pushpins gathered historical data through interviews to determine the feasibility and the impact of the proposed project. The data set includes information about past floods, diseases brought about by the flooding, and its effects on the local fishing industry, among others.
Nature at the center
Combining GIS technology with design can also augment the efforts in helping the environment. This is called “geodesign.” It’s “about bringing geographic systems and knowledge into the design process so that we can actually be guided by nature and be more sensitive to it so that we can be responsive to the greater forces of the environment,” Dangermond expounds.
Geodesigning is like to tending a garden, the Esri founder illustrates. One weeds out unwanted elements while making sure the plants are well taken care of. This ties it back to holistic planning and decision-making, wherein all the necessary factors are considered. It’s how smart cities are built: the socio-economic growth of a locale is weighed against its impact on the environment, making sure all efforts to achieve the end goal are sustainable.
Continuous advancements in technology have given birth to more applications of digital mapping. In turn, the successful use of location data for sustainable development is paving the way for a better future that was once just a pipe dream.
Pushpins is a GIS company in the Philippines. Visit our website if you want to know more about location-based data and how we can help your business or organization.