A Geographic Information System (GIS) is a software platform that enables users to study data as it relates to Earth’s geography. Analysts can create visualizations consisting of basemaps and data layers that help explain geographic patterns and trends.
For example, city planners might use GIS to study how urban areas develop over time and impact local development. Epidemiologists can use GIS to analyze disease prevalence and track how viruses spread. Climate scientists can also observe weather patterns and monitor how natural environments change.
Organizations have been using GIS platforms since the 1960s. However, they have become more accessible in recent years due to advances in cloud computing and data management technology. Overall, platforms are easier to use and less costly to license.
How Do GIS Platforms Work?
GIS platforms allow organizations to layer different types of spatial data on top of basemaps that depict real-world environments. Most GIS platforms come with a core set of basemaps, which can be customized in many ways.
Users can adjust zoom to show narrow geographic areas or vast, country-wide landscapes. They can also attribute color palettes to certain features and highlight areas that meet predefined criteria.
There are four primary types of basemaps:
- Terrain: for displaying natural physical features, such as mountains or rivers
- Road: for displaying small roads, streets, or highways
- Ocean: for displaying hydrographic elements
- Aerial: for displaying imagery captured by aircraft, including drones and satellites
These basemaps sit underneath data layers that are tied to locations on the earth’s surface. Locations can be represented in many ways. Zip codes, latitude and longitude coordinates, and street addresses are all viable approaches for connecting data layers to basemaps.
The most common types of data layers are:
- Imagery: for depicting world environments
- Boundary: for depicting area boundaries
- Demographic: for depicting socioeconomic data
GIS solutions enable organizations to combine basemaps and data layers in countless ways.
For example, a public health agency could use GIS to study how the flu spreads across a city by layering instances of the virus on top of an urban landscape. A law enforcement agency could also layer crime activity data on top of a road basemap and study how street lighting might impact behavior. Forest ecologists could easily see how national parks are shrinking or growing by layering forest boundary data on top of terrain maps.
With GIS, the analytical possibilities are endless. Many platforms can support multiple data layers simultaneously, which allows organizations to explore relationships between many types of spatial data.
Why Use GIS?
GIS solutions offer many advantages that traditional business intelligence (BI) tools do not.
Because GIS platforms enable users to visualize data over real-world landscapes, they can discover insights that would be harder to find with 2D spreadsheets and graphs. For example, it would be much more useful to study rainfall across different sections of a mountain range using a GIS map than it would through a bar chart. Using this approach, analysts can gain a much clearer perspective on spatial data that is easy to translate into actionable next steps.
Teams can also use data layers that represent different snapshots in time to observe how boundary lines or features change. As a result, they can build better forecasting models for geographic data and plan better for the future.
Today, GIS platforms are more accessible and user-friendly than ever before. For those who work with geospatial data, GIS offers a world of analytical opportunity.