Those of us who work with Geographic Information Systems (GIS), no strangers to terms like spatial data or coordinate reference systems and know our way around a map, realize the value that this field can offer. For those who are unfamiliar or are just now getting a glimpse of the tip of this scientific iceberg, it can be challenging to grasp its full potential. To help gain more perspective on the value of this technology, let’s explore the key types of questions it can answer.
What is "GIS"?
When we apply GIS here at Integrated, we are typically referring to Geographic Information Systems. These “systems” refer to computer-based tools that analyze, store, manipulate, and visualize geographic information. This is primarily done in a map, whether it be paper, digital, or web-based.
Common GIS applications for industry professionals are software platforms like ArcGIS and QGIS; companies like Tableau are even gaining traction in this arena with new mapping capabilities. For everyday use, many people are already familiar with GIS without even realizing it. Resources like Google Maps, Apple Maps, and the old school Mapquest visualizes spatial data without requiring end-users to be highly trained in mapping and analysis.
Another reference for GIS includes the term Geographic Information Science, or GIScience. While Geographic Information Systems allow us to analyze and visualize spatial data, GIScience is the reason we are able to do this in the first place. It is the how behind the what and where. The science conceptualizes how to store spatial information, collect data, and analyze it. Disciplines like remote sending, surveying, mathematics, programming, and geography all fall within the realm of GIScience.
In other words, Geographic Information Science (GIScience) is the platform on which the applications of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are built.
1. Where is it?
This is the question at the forefront of GIS, asked by end-users of highly specialized applications like ArcGIS and even those of everyday solutions like Google Maps. It allows us to locate geographic places or objects. The kicker is that we are able to do this based on multiple approaches. For example, you can search for a store based on its name or even the nearest store based on your location. Either way, we are finding the location thanks to a specific query.
The approach to finding an answer to this question can be even more complex depending on the GIS application in use. Many are designed for examining multiple criteria to determine location – and now is a good time to note that location does not always depend solely on a place’s coordinates but can also be determined by its characteristics. Yes, you read that correctly. One of the biggest accomplishments of GIS is aiding us in optimizing the location of assets – such as building, stores, travel destinations, agriculture, etc. – based on specific criteria. For example, optimal locations for a new retail store can be found by analyzing competitors in the area, demographics and income, nearby attractions, and more. It turns what could be complicated into a simple and succinct answer.
2. What is it?
Although a more conceptualized question than where, GIS can help you to discover what something may be by looking at the attributes and characteristics of the surrounding area. The answer to this question is achieved primarily through analysis rather than simply locating coordinates and is extremely valuable from an industry perspective.
A basic example of this is categorizing a town or city, determining if it is more rural or suburban. By looking at the population, demographic, industries, and availability of housing and businesses in this particular area – as well as those surrounding it – you are able to better characterize it based on these details. A more complex example of answering this question is finding the optimal locations of Well Pad Sites and Pipeline Gathering Systems in a developing oil field. By examining the elevation, governed areas, distance to populated regions, and locations of existing infrastructure, asking What is it? allows us to determine if a particular location is optimal for placement or should be avoided altogether.
3. What has changed?
There is a component to spatial data that should not be overlooked – and that is the time it represents. This could be the time the data was collected, the time the features it illustrates were active, etc. By analyzing the relationship between assets (people, places, things) and their location (the where) over time, we can better determine what has changed.
This can be applied to studying reoccurring phenomena or even learning how an area varies over time. Paired with applications like GPS, many industries also use GIS technology to track the movement of objects (i.e., delivery trucks, airplanes), wildlife, or people. This application in particular allows you to see a clear path of movement, showing both distance and time in which this change has occurred.
4. What patterns exist?
It can be next to impossible to fully grasp the relationships between occurrences without visualizing them. There is a reason the detective movies and TV shows we watch always resort to heroes pulling out a paper map and box of thumbtacks to mark the locations of crimes. Visualizing this data within the real-life region in which it occurs allows them to find patterns – for instance, do the crimes occur near specific buildings or does the suspect live within a one-block radius of each event? – to better understand the situation in general.
Patterns and relationships can be analyzed based on the attributes of the locations – such as an abundance of wildlife in a densely vegetated area versus one that lacks this vegetation – or even on a temporal level – for instance, analyzing the change in vegetation over time to determine the impact of construction on the habitat of this species and their inevitable migration.
The ability of Geographic Information System (GIS) technology to combine the attributes, locations, and temporal anomalies of our spatial data is a true advantage in the quest for understanding the world around us.
5. What if?
Understanding the previous four questions leads us to this final query at which GIS is adept. When studying locations of assets, change in regions, and developing patterns, we often develop hypotheses to aide us in this practice. This may be intentional, and it may not. Regardless, it is not uncommon to approach analysis and location from a What if? perspective.
For example, when determining the optimal placement of a Pipeline Gathering System in an oil field, what if we allowed construction to take place in Region X where it was initially avoided? Would this result in less material needed, decreased construction times, and ultimately cut costs? By using this technology to study these areas – often paired with custom built predictive models – we are better equipped to answer complicated questions about even more complex spatial relationships.
Getting An Answer
Whether you are dealing with Geographic Information System (GIS) software or working in a GIScience field, these applications and disciplines require a certain level of specialized knowledge to prove effective. Thankfully, tools like those our team uses for optimizing Oil and Gas asset placement or determining potential impact of pipeline malfunctions for Oil and Gas industries and Emergency Responders alike make it easier than ever for users to get answers to their most challenging questions. Embracing customized GIS software puts the power of this resource into the hands of those who may not otherwise know how to use it. No matter the industry in which you work, this and a better understanding of GIS in general can offer you new and better ways to accomplish your most dire tasks.
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