What is GIS?

People ask me what I’m up to, and frequently my answer is “oh, just working on some data cleaning in GIS.” This usually leads to the follow up question, “What is GIS?”

Turns out that’s kinda hard to answer. GIS stands for Geographic Information System. Note the word geographic– the information involved has coordinates or some other indicator of space. A GIS allows you to store, manage, interpret, visualize, and analyze spatial data to solve problems and answer questions. Many broad definitions of a GIS include the hardware and software used for this data analysis, any tools used for data creation (such as satellites for remote sensing), and the people that actually make  data collection and interpretation happen.

If you’ve used databases before (such as SQL or Access) the querying commonly done in GIS would be familiar to you. Much of our data is stored as points, which are essentially a database where an attribute is location. People with experience in databases are effective users of different GIS software. Coding experience is useful for people building a GIS, but isn’t necessary to use most GIS software. Many basic functions like mapping and other data visualization aren’t any more complex than most Microsoft Office applications.

One GIS most people are familiar with is GoogleMaps. The hardware it uses to store and manipulate data is owned by Google– I don’t know where it’s located. The software includes optimization features that help you find distance- or time-minimizing routes between locations. There is point data that includes business name, location, hours, and rating. Roads are stored as line data and parks are delineated. GoogleMaps even has satellite images for most of the world! Finally, when you ask for directions in a way the software can understand and select your preferred route, you become part of the GIS!

The next time you see data with a position associated with it, ask yourself where that data is being stored or how it will be used– it’s probably in a GIS!



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