Geographic information system (GIS)
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.What is a GIS?
A GIS is a computer system capable of capturing, storing, analyzing, and displaying geographically referenced information; that is, data identified according to location. Practitioners also define a GIS as including the procedures, operating personnel, and spatial data that go into the system.How does a GIS work?
The power of a GIS comes from the ability to relate different information in a spatial context and to reach a conclusion about this relationship. Most of the information we have about our world contains a location reference, placing that information at some point on the globe. When rainfall information is collected, it is important to know where the rainfall is located. This is done by using a location reference system, such as longitude and latitude, and perhaps elevation. Comparing the rainfall information with other information, such as the location of marshes across the landscape, may show that certain marshes receive little rainfall. This fact may indicate that these marshes are likely to dry up, and this inference can help us make the most appropriate decisions about how humans should interact with the marsh. A GIS, therefore, can reveal important new information that leads to better decisionmaking.
Many computer databases that can be directly entered into a GIS are being produced by Federal, State, tribal, and local governments, private companies, academia, and nonprofit 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 can be analyzed to produce a map of digital information about land use and land cover . Likewise, census or hydrologic tabular data can be converted to a maplike form and serve 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 by hand-tracing with a computer mouse on the screen or on a digitizing tablet to collect the coordinates of features. Electronic scanners can also convert maps to digits. Cordinates from Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers can also be uploaded into a GIS.
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 that road as the boundary between wetland and urban development between two census statistical areas.Data capture
—putting the information into the system—involves identifying the objects on the map, their absolute location on the Earth's surface, and their spatial relationships. Software tools that automatically extract features from satellite images or aerial photographs are gradually replacing what has traditionally been a time-consuming capture process. Objects are identified in a series of attribute tables—the "information" part of a GIS. Spatial relationships, such as whether features intersect or whether they are adjacent, are the key to all GIS-based analysis.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.
Data integration is the linking of information in different forms through a GIS.
For example, using GIS technology, it is possible to combine agricultural records with hydrography data to determine which streams will carry certain levels of fertilizer runoff. Agricultural records can indicate how much pesticide has been applied to a parcel of land. By locating these parcels and intersecting them with streams, the GIS can be used to predict the amount of nutrient runoff in each stream. Then as streams converge, the total loads can be calculated downstream where the stream enters a lake.Projection and registration
A property ownership map might be at a different scale than 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 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 is particularly appropriate for 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 .An elevation image
classified from a satellite image of Minnesota exists in a different scale and projection than the lines on the digital file of the State and province boundaries.The elevation image has been reprojected to match the projection and scale of the State and province boundaries.Data structures
Can a land use map be related to a satellite image, a timely indicator of land use? Yes, but because digital data are collected and stored in different ways, the two data sources may not be entirely compatible. Therefore, a GIS must be able to convert data from one structure to another.
Satellite image data that have 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 rows of uniform cells coded according to data values. An example is land cover classification.Raster files can be manipulated quickly by the computer, but they are often less detailed and may be 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).An example of data typically held in a vector file would be the property boundaries for a particular housing subdivision.
Data restructuring can be performed by a GIS to convert data between different formats. For example, a GIS can 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 spatial relationships of the cell, such as adjacency or inclusion.Data modeling
It is impossible to collect data over every square meter of the Earth's surface. Therefore, samples must be taken at discrete locations. A GIS can be used to depict two- and three-dimensional characteristics of the Earth's surface, subsurface, and atmosphere from points where samples have been collected.
For example, a GIS can quickly generate a map with isolines that indicate the pH of soil from test points. Such a map can be thought of as a soil pH contour map. Many sophisticated methods can estimate the characteristics of surfaces from a limited number of point measurements. Two- and three-dimensional contour maps created from the surface modeling of sample points from pH measurements can be analyzed together with any other map in a GIS covering the area.
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.
A crosshair pointer (top) can be used to point at a location stored in a GIS. The bottom illustration depicts a computer screen containing the kind of information stored about the location—for example, the latitude, longitude, projection, coordinates, closeness to wells, sources of production, roads, and slopes of land.
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 offscreen 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 the end of a street. This type of analysis allows you to draw conclusions about the swamp's environmental sensitivity.Topological modeling
Have there ever been gas stations or factories that operated next to the swamp? Were any of these uphill from and within 2 miles of the swamp? A GIS can recognize and analyze the spatial relationships among mapped phenomena. Conditions of adjacency (what is next to what), containment (what is enclosed by what), and proximity (how close something is to something else) can be determined with a GIS .Networks
When nutrients from farmland are running off into streams, it is important to know in which direction the streams flow and which streams empty into other streams. This is done by using a linear network. It allows the computer to determine how the nutrients are transported downstream. Additional information on water volume and speed throughout the spatial network can help the GIS determine how long it will take the nutrients to travel downstream. A GIS can simulate the movement of materials along a network of lines. These illustrations show the route of pollutants through a stream system. Flow directions are indicated by arrows.Overlay
Using maps of wetlands, slopes, streams, land use, and soils (figs. 19a-f), the GIS might produce a new map layer or overlay that ranks the wetlands according to their relative sensitivity to damage from nutrient runoff.Data output
A critical component of a GIS is its ability to produce graphics on the screen or on paper to convey the results of analyses to the people who make decisions about resources. Wall maps, Internet-ready maps, interactive maps, and other graphics can be generated, allowing the decisionmakers to visualize and thereby understand the results of analyses or simulations of potential events.Framework for cooperation
The use of a GIS can encourage cooperation and communication among the organizations involved in environmental protection, planning, and resource management. The collection of data for a GIS is costly. Data collection can require very specialized computer equipment and technical expertise.
Standard data formats ease the exchange of digital information among users of different systems. Standardization helps to stretch data collection funds further by allowing data sharing, and, in many cases, gives users access to data that they could not otherwise collect for economic or technical reasons. Organizations such as the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science and the Federal Geographic Data Committee seek to encourage standardization efforts.GIS through history
Some 35,000 years ago, Cro-Magnon hunters drew pictures of the animals they hunted on the walls of caves near Lascaux, France. 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 (GIS): 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. In a GIS, the migration routes were indicated 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.Mapmaking
Researchers are working to incorporate the mapmaking processes of traditional cartographers into GIS technology for the automated production of maps.
One of the most common products of a GIS is a map. Maps are generally easy to make using a GIS and they are often the most effective means of communicating the results of the GIS process. Therefore, the GIS is usually a prolific producer of maps. The users of a GIS must be concerned with the quality of the maps produced because the GIS normally does not regulate common cartographic principles. One of these principles is the concept of generalization, which deals with the content and detail of information at various scales. The GIS user can change scale at the push of a button, but controlling content and detail is often not so easy. Mapmakers have long recognized that content and detail need to change as the scale of the map changes. For example, the State of New Jersey can be mapped at various scales, from the small scale of 1:500,000 to the larger scale of 1:250,000 and the yet larger scale of 1:100,000 ,but each scale requires an appropriate level of generalization .Site selection
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), in a cooperative project with the Connecticut Department of Natural Resources, digitized more than 40 map layers for the areas covered by the USGS Broad Brook and Ellington 7.5-minute topographic quadrangle maps . This information can be combined and manipulated in a GIS to address planning and natural resource issues. GIS information was used to locate a potential site for a new water well within half a mile of the Somers Water Company service area.
To prepare the analysis, cartographers stored digital maps of the water service areas in the GIS. They used the proximity function in the GIS to draw a half-mile buffer zone around the water company service area.This buffer zone was the "window" used to view and combine the various map coverages relevant to the well site selection.
The land use and land cover map for the two areas shows that the area is partly developed. A GIS was used to select undeveloped areas from the land use and land cover map as the first step in finding well sites. The developed areas were eliminated from further consideration.The quality of water in Connecticut streams is closely monitored. Some of the streams in the study area were known to be unusable as drinking water sources. To avoid pulling water from these streams into the wells, 100-meter buffer zones were created around the unsuitable streams using the GIS, and the zones were plotted on the map. The areas in blue have the characteristics desired for a water well site.
Point sources of pollution are recorded by the Connecticut Department of Natural Resources. These records consist of a location and a text description of the pollutant.To avoid these toxic areas, a buffer zone of 500 meters was established around each point.This information was combined with the previous two map layers to produce a new map of areas suitable for well sites. Points sources of pollution in the water service area are identified and entered into a GIS.
The map of surficial geology shows the earth materials that lie above bedrock. Since the area under consideration in Connecticut is covered by glacial deposits, the surface consists largely of sand and gravel, with some glacial till and fine-grained sediments. Of these materials, sand and gravel are the most likely to store water that could be tapped with wells. Areas underlain by sand and gravel were selected from the surficial geology map. They were combined with the results of the previous selections to produce a map consisting of: (1) sites in underdeveloped areas underlain by sand and gravel, (2) more than 500 meters from point sources of pollution, and (3) more than 100 meters from unsuitable streams .
A map that shows the thickness of saturated sediments was created by using the GIS to subtract the bedrock elevation from the surface elevation (fig. 17). For this analysis, areas having more than 40 feet of saturated sediments were selected and combined with the previous overlays.
The resulting site selection map shows areas that are undeveloped, are situated outside the buffered pollution areas, and are underlain by 40 feet or more of water-saturated sand and gravel. Because of map resolution and the limits of precision in digitizing, the very small polygons (areas) may not have all of the characteristics analyzed, so another GIS function was used to screen out areas smaller than 10 acres. The final six sites are displayed with the road and stream network and selected place names for use in the field .
Potential water well sites, roads, streams and place names.
The process illustrated by this site selection analysis has been used for many common applications, including transportation planning and waste disposal site location. The technique is particularly useful when several physical factors must be considered and integrated over a large area.Emergency response planning
The Wasatch Fault zone runs through Salt Lake City along the foot of the Wasatch Mountains in north-central Utah .
A GIS was used to combine road network and earth science information to analyze the effect of an earthquake on the response time of fire and rescue squads. The area covered by the USGS Sugar House 7.5-minute topographic quadrangle map was selected for the study because it includes both undeveloped areas in the mountains and a part of Salt Lake City. Detailed earth science information was available for the entire region.
The road network from a USGS digital line graph includes information on the types of roads, which range from rough trails to divided highways . The locations of fire stations were plotted on the road network. A GIS function called network analysis was used to calculate the time necessary for emergency vehicles to travel from the fire stations to different areas of the city. The network analysis function considers two elements: (1) distance from the fire station, and (2) speed of travel based on the type of road. The analysis shows that under normal conditions, most of the area within the city will be served in less than 7 minutes and 30 seconds because of the distribution and density of fire stations and the continuous network of roads.
The accompanying illustration depicts the blockage of the road network that would result from an earthquake, assuming that any road crossing the fault trace would become impassable. The primary effect on emergency response time would occur in neighborhoods west of the fault trace, where travel times from the fire stations would be noticeably lengthened.
Figure 21. Before faulting. Road network of area covered by the Sugar House quadrangle plotted from USGS digital line graph data, indicating the locations of fire stations and travel times of emergency vehicles. Areas in blue can receive service within 2½minutes, area in green within 5 minutes, areas in yellow within 7½ minutes, and areas in magenta within 10 minutes. Areas in white cannot receive service within 10 minutes.
After faulting, initial model. Network analysis in a GIS produces a map of travel times from the stations after faulting. The fault is in red. Emergency response times have increased for areas west of the fault.
The Salt Lake City area lies on lake sediments of varying thicknesses. These sediments range from clay to sand and gravel, and most are water-saturated. In an earthquake, these materials may momentarily lose their ability to support surface structures, including roads. The potential for this phenomenon, known as liquefaction, is shown in a composite map portraying the inferred relative stability of the land surface during an earthquake. Areas near the fault and underlain by thick, loosely consolidated, water-saturated sediments will suffer the most intense surface motion during an earthquake.Areas on the mountain front with thin surface sediments will experience less additional ground acceleration. The map of liquefaction potential was combined with the road network analysis to show the additional effect of liquefaction on response times.
The final map shows that areas near the fault, as well as those underlain by thick, water-saturated sediments, are subject to more road disruptions and slower emergency response than are other areas of the city.Map of potential ground l liquefaction during an earthquake. The least stable areas are shown by yellows and oranges, the most stable by grays and browns.
Figure 24. After faulting, final model. A map showing the effect of an earthquake on emergency travel times is reduced by combining the liquefaction potential information from figure 23 with the network analysis from .
To more realistically analyze the effect of the Earth's terrain, we use three-dimensional models within a GIS. A GIS can display the Earth in realistic, three-dimensional perspective views and animations that convey information more effectively and to wider audiences than traditional, two-dimensional, static maps. The U.S. Forest Service was offered a land swap by a mining company seeking development rights to a mineral deposit in Arizona's Prescott National Forest. Using a GIS, the USGS and the U.S. Forest Service created perspective views of the area to depict the terrain as it would appear after mining .
Figure 25. Prescott National Forest, showing altered topography due to mine development.
To assess the potential hazard of landslides both on land and underwater, the USGS generated a three-dimensional image of the San Francisco Bay area .It created the image by mosaicking eight scenes of natural color composite Landsat 7 enhanced thematic mapper imagery on California fault data using approximately 700 digital elevation models at 1:24,000 scale.
Graphic display techniques
Traditional maps are abstractions of the real world; each map is 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 the land surface with contour lines. Graphic display techniques in GISs make relationships among map elements more visible, heightening one's ability to extract and analyze information.
Two types of data were combined in a GIS to produce a perspective view of a part of San Mateo County, Calif. The digital elevation model, consisting of surface elevations recorded on a 30-meter horizontal grid, shows high elevations as white and low elevations as black (fig. 27). The accompanying Landsat thematic mapper image shows a false-color infrared image of the same area in 30-meter pixels, or picture elements and combine the two images to produce the three- dimentional image.
Maps have traditionally been used to explore the Earth. GIS technology has enhanced the efficiency and analytical power of traditional cartography. 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. Map and satellite information sources can be combined in models that simulate the interactions of complex natural systems.
Through a process 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 they never could before. The images often are helpful in conveying the technical concepts of a GIS to nonscientists.
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 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. The satellite sensor used in this analysis is the advanced very high resolution radiometer (AVHRR), which detects the amounts of energy reflected from the Earth's surface at a 1-kilometer resolution twice a day. Other sensors provide spatial resolutions of less than 1 meter.
Serving GIS over the Internet
Through Internet map server technology, spatial data can be accessed and analyzed over the Internet. For example, current wildfire perimeters are displayed with a standard web browser, allowing fire managers to better respond to fires while in the field and helping homeowners to take precautionary measures.
The future of GIS
Environmental studies, geography, geology, planning, business marketing, and other disciplines have benefitted from GIS tools and methods. Together with cartography, remote sensing, global positioning systems, photogrammetry, and geography, the GIS has evolved into a discipline with its own research base known as geographic information sciences. An active GIS market has resulted in lower costs and continual improvements in GIS hardware, software, and data. These developments will lead to a much wider application of the technology throughout government, business, and industry.
GIS and related technology will help analyze large datasets, allowing a better understanding of terrestrial processes and human activities to improve economic vitality and environmental quality.