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Geographic information system

A geographic information system (GIS) is a specialized form of an information system. In the strictest sense, it is a computer system capable of assembling, storing, manipulating, and displaying geographically-referenced information, i.e. data identified according to their locations. Practitioners also regard the total GIS as including operating personnel and the data that go into the system.

Geographic information systems technology can be used for scientific investigations, resource management and development planning. For example, a GIS might allow emergency planners to easily calculate emergency response times in the event of a natural disaster, or a GIS might be used to find wetlands that need protection from pollution.

Table of contents
1 Relating information from different sources
2 Data Capture
3 Data integration
4 Projection and registration
5 Data structures
6 Data modeling
7 What's special about a GIS?
8 Information retrieval
9 Topological modeling
10 Networks
11 Overlay
12 Data output
13 Applications of GIS
14 GIS through history
15 Graphic display techniques
16 The future of GIS
17 External links

Relating information from different sources

If you could relate information about the rainfall of your state to aerial photographs of your county, you might be able to tell which wetlands dry up at certain times of the year. A GIS, which can use information from many different sources in many different forms, can help with such analyses. The primary requirement for the source data consists of knowing the locations for the variables. Location may be annotated by x,y, and z coordinates of longitude, latitude, and elevation, or by such systems as ZIP codes or highway mile markers. Any variable that can be located spatially can be fed into a GIS. Several computer databases that can be directly entered into a GIS are being produced by government agencies and non-government organizations. Different kinds of data in map form can be entered into a GIS.

A GIS can also convert existing digital information, which may not yet be in map form, into forms it can recognize and use. For example, digital satellite images generated through remote sensing can be analyzed to produce a map-like layer of digital information about vegetative covers.

Likewise, census or hydrologic tabular data can be converted to map-like form, serving as layers of thematic information in a GIS.

Data Capture

How can a GIS use the information in a map? If the data to be used are not already in digital form, that is, in a form the computer can recognize, various techniques can capture the information. Maps can be digitized, or hand-traced with a digitizer, to collect the coordinates of features.

Electronic scanning devices will also convert map lines and points to digits.

A GIS can be used to emphasize the spatial relationships among the objects being mapped. While a computer-aided mapping system may represent a road simply as a line, a GIS may also recognize such a road as the border between wetland and urban development, or as the link between Main Street and Blueberry Lane.

Data capture - putting the information into the system - consumes much of the time of GIS practitioners. Identities of the objects on the map must be specified, as well as their spatial relationships. Editing of automatically captured information can also prove difficult. Electronic scanners record blemishes on a map just as faithfully as they record the map features. For example, a fleck of dirt might connect two lines that should not be connected. Extraneous data must be edited, or removed from the digital data file.

Data integration

A GIS makes it possible to link, or integrate, information that is difficult to associate through any other means. Thus, a GIS can use combinations of mapped variables to build and analyze new variables.

Using GIS technology and water-supplier billing information, it is possible to simulate the discharge of materials in the septic systems in a neighborhood upstream from a wetland. The bills show how much water is used at each address. The amount of water a customer uses will roughly predict the amount of material that will be discharged into the septic systems, so that areas of heavy septic discharge can be located using a GIS.

Projection and registration

A property ownership map and a soils map might show data at different scales. Map information in a GIS must be manipulated so that it registers, or fits, with information gathered from other maps. Before the digital data can be analyzed, they may have to undergo other manipulations - projection conversions, for example - that integrate them into a GIS.

Projection is a fundamental component of map making. A projection is a mathematical means of transferring information from the Earth's three-dimensional curved surface to a two-dimensional medium - paper or a computer screen. Different projections are used for different types of maps because each projection particularly suits certain uses. For example, a projection that accurately represents the shapes of the continents will distort their relative sizes.

Since much of the information in a GIS comes from existing maps, a GIS uses the processing power of the computer to transform digital information, gathered from sources with different projections, to a common projection.

Data structures

Can a property ownership map be related to a satellite image, a timely indicator of land uses? Yes, but since digital data are collected and stored in various ways, the two data sources may not be entirely compatible. So a GIS must be able to convert data from one structure to another.

Image data from a satellite that has been interpreted by a computer to produce a land-use map can be "read into" the GIS in raster format. Raster data files consist of columns and rows of uniform cells coded according to data values.

Raster data files can be manipulated quickly by the computer, but they are often less detailed and may appear less visually appealing than vector data files, which can approximate the appearance of more traditional hand-drafted maps. Vector digital data have been captured as points, lines (a series of point coordinates), or areas (shapes bounded by lines). In addition, raster data files require some means of tying them to the Earth's surface; these vary from vendor to vendor, but a widely-used way of doing this is through a World file which represents the location, scale and rotation of the map image.

An example of data typically held in a vector file would be the property boundaries for a housing subdivision.

Data restructuring can be performed by a GIS to convert data into different formats. For example, a GIS may be used to convert a satellite image map to a vector structure by generating lines around all cells with the same classification, while determining the cell spatial relationships, such as adjacency or inclusion.

Thus a GIS can be used to analyze land use information in conjunction with property ownership information.

Data modeling

It is difficult to relate wetlands maps to rainfall amounts recorded at different points such as airports, television stations, and high schools. A GIS, however, can be used to depict two- and three-dimensional characteristics of the Earth's surface, subsurface, and atmosphere from information points.

For example, a GIS can quickly generate a map with lines that indicate rainfall amounts.

Such a map can be thought of as a rainfall contour map. Many sophisticated methods can estimate the characteristics of surfaces from a limited number of point measurements. A two-dimensional contour map created from the surface modeling of rainfall point measurements may be overlaid and analyzed with any other map in a GIS covering the same area.

What's special about a GIS?

The way maps and other data have been stored or filed as layers of information in a GIS makes it possible to perform complex analyses.

Information retrieval

What do you know about the swampy area at the end of your street? With a GIS you can "point" at a location, object, or area on the screen and retrieve recorded information about it from off-screen files.

Using scanned aerial photographs as a visual guide, you can ask a GIS about the geology or hydrology of the area, or even about how close a swamp is to end of a street. This kind of analytic function allows you to draw conclusions about the swamp's environmental sensitivity.

Topological modeling

In the past 35 years, were there any gas stations or factories operating next to the swamp? any within two miles and uphill from the swamp? A GIS can recognize and analyze the spatial relationships among mapped phenomena. A GIS can determine conditions of adjacency (what adjoins what), containment (what encloses what), and proximity (how close something is to something else).


If all the factories near a wetland were accidentally to release chemicals into the river at the same time, how long would it take for a damaging amount of pollutant to enter the wetland reserve? A GIS can simulate the route of materials along a linear network. It is possible to assign values such as direction and speed to the digital stream and "move" the contaminants through the stream system.


Using maps of wetlands, slopes, streams, land use, and soils, the GIS might produce a new map layer (or overlay) that ranks the wetlands according to their relative sensitivity to damage from nearby factories or homes.

Data output

A critical component of a GIS is its ability to produce graphics on the screen or on paper that convey the results of analysis to the people who make decisions about resources. Wall maps and other graphics can be generated, allowing the viewer to visualize and thereby understand the results of analyses or simulations of potential events. Internet Map Servers facilitate distribution of generated maps via the web technology.

Applications of GIS

GIS through history

35,000 years ago, on the walls of caves near
Lascaux, France, Cro-Magnon hunters drew pictures of the animals they hunted. Associated with the animal drawings are track lines and tallies thought to depict migration routes. These early records followed the two-element structure of modern geographic information systems: a graphic file linked to an attribute database.

Today, biologists use collar transmitters and satellite receivers to track the migration routes of caribou and polar bears to help design programs to protect the animals. One GIS displayed the migration routes by different colors for each month for 21 months. Researchers then used the GIS to superimpose the migration routes on maps of oil-development plans to determine the potential for interference with the animals.

Graphic display techniques

Traditional maps are abstractions of the real world, a sampling of important elements portrayed on a sheet of paper with symbols to represent physical objects. People who use maps must interpret these symbols. Topographic maps show the shape of land surface with contour lines. The actual shape of the land can be seen only in the mind's eye. Graphic display techniques in a GIS can make relationships among map elements visible, heightening one's ability to extract and analyze information.

Two types of data were combined in a GIS to produce a perspective view or a portion of San Mateo County, California. The digital elevation model, consisting of surface elevations recorded on a 30-meter horizontal grid, shows high elevations as white and low elevation as black.

The accompanying Landsat Thematic Mapper image shows a false-color infrared image of the same area in 30-meter pixels, or picture elements.

A GIS was used to register and combine the two images to produce the three-dimensional perspective view looking down the San Andreas Fault.

The future of GIS

Many disciplines can benefit from GIS techniques. An active GIS market has resulted in lower costs and continual improvements in the hardware and software components of GIS. These developments will, in turn, result in a much wider application of the technology throughout government, business, and industry.

Global Change and Climate History Program

Maps have traditionally been used to explore the Earth and to exploit its resources. GIS technology, as an expansion of cartographic science, has enhanced the efficiency and analytic power of traditional mapping. Now, as the scientific community recognizes the environmental consequences of human activity, GIS technology is becoming an essential tool in the effort to understand the process of global change. Various map and satellite information sources can combine in modes that simulate the interactions of complex natural systems.

Through a function known as visualization, a GIS can be used to produce images - not just maps, but drawings, animations, and other cartographic products. These images allow researchers to view their subjects in ways that literally never have been seen before. The images often are equally helpful in conveying the technical concepts of GIS study-subjects to non-scientists.

Adding the element of time

The condition of the Earth's surface, atmosphere, and subsurface can be examined by feeding satellite data into a GIS. GIS technology gives researchers the ability to examine the variations in Earth processes over days, months, and years. As an example, the changes in vegetation vigor through a growing season can be animated to determine when drought was most extensive in a particular region. The resulting graphic, known as a normalized vegetation index, represents a rough measure of plant health.

Working with two variables over time will allow researchers to detect regional differences in the lag between a decline in rainfall and its effect on vegetation.

GIS technology and the availability of digital data on regional and global scales enable such analyses. The satellite sensor output used to generate the vegetation graphic is produced by the Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer or AVHRR. This sensor system detects the amounts of energy reflected from the Earth's surface across various bands of the spectrum for surface areas of about 1 square kilometer. The satellite sensor produces images of a particular location on the Earth twice a day. AVHRR is only one of many sensor systems used for Earth surface analysis. More sensors will follow, generating ever greater amounts of data.

GIS and related technology will help greatly in the management and analysis of these large volumes of data, allowing for better understanding of terrestrial processes and better management of human activities to maintain world economic vitality and environmental quality.

See also: cartography, remote sensing, Open GIS Consortium

External links