What is a GIS?

Geographic Information Systems

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

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 and in many different forms, can help with such analyses. The primary requirement for the source data is that the locations for the variables are known. 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.  Also, 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 can be analyzed to produce a map like layer of digital information about vegetative covers.

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 computer mouse, to collect the coordinates of features.  Electronic scanning devices will also convert map lines and points to digits.

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.

By using GIS technology and water company 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 might be at a different scale from a soils map. 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 mapmaking. A projection is a mathematical means of transferring information from a 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 is particularly appropriate to certain uses. For example, a projection that accurately represents the shapes of the continents will distort their relative sizes.

Data structures

Can a property ownership map be related to a satellite image, a timely indicator of land uses? Yes, but, because 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.

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.

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 overlain and analyzed with any other map in a GIS covering the same area.