What is Geographical Information System (GIS)?

Updated: Jul 24, 2019



What is GIS?


A Geographic Information System (GIS) is a framework which can gather geographical data for a given terrain in multiple layers, which can be managed, analysed and edited digitally. In simple words, GIS is a digitally augmented and enhanced representation of data and organizing it visually using maps and 3D imagery.


GIS is the ‘smart’ approach towards the ancient art of mapping and surveying. The visual or spatial data is mapped and visually represented, using multiple vector and raster layers where as numerous other attributes can be stored in databases which run at the back of GIS. GIS is one common information pool about a given geography, to which people from different professions (e.g. maintenance team, design team, etc.) can refer and can also update.


In other words, GIS enables us to relate data, which apparently is unrelated, on geography, to gain a better understanding, insights and subsequently fine-tune the activities.


What Does GIS Consist Of?


Any GIS consists of five core elements: Software, Hardware, Data, People and Processes.

Components of GIS
  1. Software: The GIS software is the soul which powers up the entire information system. The GIS software runs on a machine (hardware) and has provision for efficiently maintaining data and creating visuals out of it. The software also includes multiple databases which stores different data-sets. Sophisticated GIS also comes with software which can analyse the data, display trends and helps gain insights. Most importantly, GIS comes with a guided graphical user interface which facilitates easy communication between the machine and the user/ operator. The most popular GIS software application is ESRI's ArcGIS. However, there are also equally powerful freewares available like QGIS, etc.

  2. Hardware: Hardware refers to the actual machines on which the GIS software is loaded and the actual server that stores the data. Hardware could be a centralized server or computers operating in a network or stand-alone. The nature and scale of hardware depends on how much data intensive the project is.

  3. Data: Arguably, data is the most important component of the GIS; rather, GIS and all of its other components work in tandem to capture and showcase the data properly. The data can either be gathered through surveys and field studies or can be purchased from third party research organizations. Spatial data is presented in vector or raster layers. Additional data attributes can be attributed, to the vector layers in form of tables, such 'data of data' is termed as 'metadata'.

  4. People: GIS system needs human intervention and human inputs from time to time. If the data gathered by researchers is not correct, GIS will be of little use and can be misleading. Post data collection, experts with fine understanding of domain and geography are required to interpret the data correctly. A team of skilled professionals is required to maintain the system, efficiently.

  5. Processes and Methodologies: Every organisation needs to have well designed and documented chain of processes which serves as the guideline to use the GIS.


Illustration 1 : Digital Georeferenced Spatial Data

How Does GIS Operate?


In GIS, objects having common characteristics are grouped together. One such group forms on layer. In this manner, different layers are created for different data-sets pertaining to a given geographical region. The final layer is a overlay of such multiple geo-referenced layers. As per requirement, the user can either refer to entire data or specific data from the selected layers can be extracted and analysed.


The GIS stores and models data in two formats; vector and raster. Vector data consists of basic geographical shapes like lines, points, polygons etc. whereas raster data comprises of pixels.


Illustration 2 : Digital Georeferenced Spatial Data

Advantages of Using GIS:


How many advantages does a smart phone has over an analog telephone? As one might start listing down, one realizes that the list is almost unending, as a smart phone opens up doors to so many avenues which otherwise are completely missing in a conventional analog phone. In the same way, GIS has transformed the way we capture, analyse and use geographical data.

  1. GIS makes a large amount of data accessible to multiple users, concurrently. This is a boon, especially when large projects need to be completed in short time spans and also for proper monitoring and maintenance of projects, once they are fully executed.

  2. As GIS enables analyzing different types of data, in relation to each other, or enables user to analyse coincidental and proximal (nearness) relations of features that occupy the same geographic space, it can help finding out valuable facts, which otherwise are difficult to determine. For instance, GIS can help study the effects of future urban developments on the environment. Because of the ability of referring to multiple parameters simultaneously, it can easily point out possible future conflicts well in advance and allows for holistic planning and development.

  3. As there is no restriction on what kind of data can be attributed to a given geography, GIS is all compassing tool which can map infinite data-sets about numerous parameters like economic status, health, literacy, water availability, environmental parameters, telecom network services etc. This makes GIS, the Bible of managing, planning and actually executing any initiative of public welfare, that too at a very fast pace.



Common Applications of GIS:


Though the actual number of applications where GIS can be used is beyond our calculations, here are some common and prominent applications where use of GIS is increasing steeply:


  • Mapping

  • Telecom and Network services

  • Accident Analysis and Hot Spot Analysis

  • Urban Planning

  • Transportation Planning

  • Environmental Impact Analysis

  • Agricultural Applications

  • Disaster Management and Mitigation

  • Landslide Hazard Zoning using GIS

  • Determine Land use/land Cover Changes

  • Navigation (routing and scheduling)

  • Flood Damage Estimation

  • Natural Resources Management

  • Banking Sector

  • Soil Mapping and Surveying

  • Wildlife Management

  • Studying Deforestation etc.


In the next part (click here) of WaterWisdom, we shall see the detailed roles and applications of GIS in improving the Water Infrastructure.


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