Monday, August 17, 2009

What is GIS?

By Kwabena Agyeman, Graduate Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

The past three decades have seen quite a revolution in the way people view their neighborhoods, towns and cities: a revolution brought about by the computer technology known as GIS, or Geographic Information Systems. GIS helps us analyze spatially-referenced data and make well-informed decisions based on the association between the data and the geography. It refers to both the software and hardware that make up the system of digital databases and layered maps. But it's more than that. At the Kirwan Institute, GIS plays an important part in mapping the geographic distribution of opportunity to help evaluate where opportunity mismatches exist in a community.

The key to an effective GIS is an accurate and up-to-date base framework with an organizational structure that promotes enterprise-wide use and prevents duplication of effort. GIS offers real promise in being able to assist organizations in achieving their respective objectives. Furthermore, the geographic and spatial nature of GIS has been shown to facilitate a more comprehensive and holistic approach to problem solving.

Although GIS provides a great means for digital mapping, it is not simply a computer system for making maps, GIS is an analytical tool. The major advantage of a GIS is that it allows you to identify the spatial relationships between map features. A GIS does not store a map in any conventional sense; nor does it store a particular image or view of a geographic area. Instead, a GIS is a type of database management system from which you can draw a desired view to suit a particular purpose.

I am very optimistic about the future of GIS. When I think of all the major problems that we face throughout the world today - overpopulation, food shortages, reduced agricultural production, adverse climate change, and poverty - these are all quintessentially geographic problems. These problems are all concerned with the human relationship to the land, and this is where GIS can make its biggest contribution. GIS is the technology of our time and the application is limited only by the imagination of those who use it. That is what makes GIS so exciting.

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