What Are the Basics of GIS: A Primer on Geospatial Technology

What you need to know about Geographic Information System, and how you can use it to improve systems in your business or organization

Photo by Geran de Klerk on Unsplash

Geographic Information System (GIS), in simple terms, is digital mapping that can be integrated to a variety of information to gain insights and solve problems. It has been around for decades, and as recent years saw technology advance by leaps and bounds, the applications of GIS have also multiplied. Here, we explore the basics of GIS and how it is used in various industries.

Decoding the jargon

Learning how you can leverage GIS for your organization might sound overwhelming. Here are common terms you might encounter.

·       Attribute data are additional information related to spatial data. These are also called non-spatial or tabular data, like names, addresses, and descriptions of properties. In an e-commerce site, for example, the customer database may include a customer’s name, email, home address, payment method, and purchase history, among other details.

·       Data visualization makes use of visual elements like graphs, charts, diagrams, and maps to present data in a visually appealing manner. This allows for better understanding of an otherwise confounding set of information.

·       Geocoding is the process of assigning geographic coordinates (i.e., longitude and latitude) to a specific location.

·       GNSS stands for “global navigation satellite system.” It provides accurate location and time based on satellite information. Countries like the U.S., Russia, Japan, and China have their own GNSS. U.S.-owned or operated GNSS is called GPS, which stands for “global positioning system.” The two are often used interchangeably, although “GNSS” is the universal term.

·       Layers are composed of individual sets of organized spatial data, each representing a specific type of information. Layers are used to combine multiple datasets so as to visualize relationships between these sets of data.

·       Location intelligence makes use of location data in analyzing spatial data sets. These are then visualized using GIS to come up with informed decisions.

·       Metadata refer to the information about the data per se. It can pertain to the data’s source, creation date, author, format, and other relevant description. Metadata are important in establishing the context, validity, and reliability of the data. To illustrate, consider the exchangeable image format (EXIF) of a photo. This contains information on the date and time the photo was taken, its file size and format, the camera settings, and other details.

·       Remote sensing is a method of remotely gathering information about the Earth’s surface using sensors or cameras.

·       Spatial analysis is the process of analyzing the attributes of geographic features to look for patterns, relationships, and trends. It’s similar to gathering and scrutinizing sales figures or market trends to come up with a strategic plan to grow a business.

·      Spatial data are data associated with a particular geographic location or position such as coordinates, points, satellite imagery, and topographic maps.

A map with pushpins illustrating location intelligence
Photo by Z on Unsplash

Why GIS is essential

Various industries and disciplines are already putting GIS to good use to improve overall processes and systems. The key benefit: informed decision-making. When you have all the information you need, you become more confident in deciding what actions to take and which among these actions provide the best answer(s) to solve a problem. You’re also able to determine which problem to prioritize and how.

Accuracy is imperative especially when it comes to using data for better decision-making. With GIS technology, you can capture, collate, organize, and manage data so there’s less room for errors and inconsistency. Think about healthcare, where miniscule details such as blood chemistry are of utmost importance to properly diagnose a patient and determine the best treatment.

Leveraging GIS can also help in streamlining processes so you can enhance efficiency and increase productivity. It gives you access to real-time data, which can significantly reduce downtime and costs. GIS can also facilitate better communication and collaboration between departments.

Resource management can also greatly benefit from GIS. This technology makes it possible to efficiently analyze resources, monitor changes overtime, track assets, and enhance resource utilization and allocation.

Reshaping industries

Different industries and organizations use GIS in a myriad of ways. Here are a few examples.

In urban planning

Urban planners employ GIS to analyze and visualize various data on land use, infrastructure planning, demographics, and environmental factors. This is essential in addressing urban planning issues and in designing smart, sustainable cities.

In agriculture

The use of GIS enables farmers to increase production while reducing costs. Farmers can map soil characteristics, predict yield, and monitor crop growth so they can optimize the use of fertilizers, water, and other resources.

A heat map illustrating GIS use in emergency response
Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

In emergency response and disaster mitigation

Creating maps that show the location of evacuation routes, shelters, and critical infrastructure and population is key to effective emergency response and disaster mitigation. Firefighters, medical personnel, police, and other emergency responders make use of this information to ensure timely help and rescue. On the other hand, organizations and government agencies rely on such information to reduce the risks of disasters.

In environmental management and sustainability efforts

Mapping and analyzing data on water and air quality, natural resources, and wildlife habitats, for instance, are crucial to environmental conservation. Leaders and environmentalists can use these datasets in crafting well-informed policies and ensuring that sustainable practices are implemented and observed.

In transportation

Transport agencies and local governments leverage GIS technology to improve traffic flow. Decision-makers collect and analyze transportation routes, vehicle volume, traffic patterns, and road conditions so they can come up with better solutions for all road users.

In marketing

GIS now enables marketers and industry leaders to look beyond their market’s demographics. Location data, combined with customer behavior and preferences, provide a deeper insight into what the market needs in an ever-changing consumer landscape. This allows businesses to craft better sales and marketing strategies.

In real estate

GIS technology also plays a role in property development. By creating a dashboard, for instance, all the information developers need to manage, expand, and sell their properties is made readily available in just a few clicks.

In architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC)

GIS provides valuable data on environmental conditions, terrain, and accessibility so that  architects and engineers can better facilitate site selection. It also helps in infrastructure planning and management for a more optimized construction and maintenance. 3D visualization and modeling, as well as digital twins, are also used to simulate construction sites for real-time monitoring and management.

Staying ahead of the curve

The use of GIS continues to evolve as technology progresses at a rapid pace. In fact, the recent GeoConnect Asia conference held in Singapore showcased numerous trends and potential applications of this technology and how it’s shaping the geospatial landscape across all fields.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, more commonly known as drones), for instance, are now used to help maintain the safety of amusement park rides in Resorts World Sentosa in Singapore. These remotely piloted aircraft are also used to create a more accurate inventory of plantations. Drone deliveries have also taken flight, with more than 2,000 commercial deliveries in 2022.

A hovering drone
Photo by Jared Brashier on Unsplash

Indoor mapping, meanwhile, makes it easier to manage assets. Hospitals, for example, can monitor the use and location of their healthcare equipment with help from geospatial technology and tracking devices. Navigating complex structures is also made possible when GNSS isn’t available. Indoor mapping also provides information on emergency evacuation routes, real-time occupancy, and facility management.

Then there’s 3D GIS, which enables users to visualize and analyze data in three dimensions. This is useful in urban planning, architecture, and engineering. Moreover, 3D GIS can serve as a foundation for augmented reality/virtual reality (AR/VR), resulting in a more immersive and interactive experience.

Cloud-based GIS has also been gaining traction in recent years. As with online collaboration tools like Google Docs and Trello, cloud-based GIS provides data access wherever you are. This makes information easily accessible for seamless collaboration. Ramp that up with real-time GIS, and you have a robust system readily available for sectors that need it most, like environmental management and emergency response. Mobile GIS is also becoming increasingly practical because it allows you to gather and analyze data without lugging around cumbersome machines.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) also play a significant role in automating GIS-related processes. They are used in recognizing patterns and making predictions, among many other tasks that would otherwise take up more time to accomplish. Furthermore, using AI and ML provides a more accurate and efficient data analysis.

The Segment Anything Model (SAM), a form of machine learning unveiled by Meta earlier this year, can be used for object and scene detection. This is especially useful when combined with GIS. Case in point: SAM can help identify changes in land cover to help experts determine and monitor the impact of climate change. Used in conjunction with other geospatial technologies, SAM can also identify areas affected by natural disasters for more timely relief response.

Getting on the geospatial train

All these may sound daunting, especially when there’s a gap in technical know-how in your organization. After all, GIS isn’t learned overnight, nor can it be integrated into and implemented with existing systems and processes in a day. GIS technology also requires substantial resources. Technical support, data management, and access to software all entail costs that should be considered.

A practical way to get around these hurdles: outsource geospatial requirements to augment current workflows and in-house skill set. This can be done on a project-based setup for seamless reinforcement. Consulting with GIS companies is also an effective workaround if you want to explore how you can benefit from this technology. Your organization can also partner with geospatial service providers in acquiring and managing data, whether on-site or remotely.

Geographic Information System and location intelligence are groundbreaking tools that can help individuals, businesses, communities, and organizations understand and navigate complex issues. Now is the time to start taking advantage of this technology.

Message us if you want to know more about geospatial solutions and how we can help your business or organization.

Related Posts