What Is GIS?
The U.S. Geological Survey defines GIS as “a computer system that analyzes and displays geographically referenced information” and that “uses data that is attached to a unique location.”
Jones, who is also the global manager of cadastre and land records at GIS firm Esri, notes more broadly that GIS is a combination of hardware, software, data and analytical tools used to manage data and merge data sets together for better decision-making.
“There’s all kinds of different ways you can connect data, and what GIS does is it connects data with location,” he says. “So, if you know several data sets’ locations, you can overlay them and extract a lot of analysis from it.”
According to Jones, of all data has a spatial component, which GIS leverages. GIS enables agencies to approach problems from a geographic perspective, leveraging location and data internal and external to the system to make more informed and better decisions.
Which Technologies Enable GIS for Government?
There are four key technology components that allow government agencies and other organizations to leverage GIS, Jones says.
The first is the enterprise geodatabase, which is basically a database built to manage location. It allows organizations to use location and do spatial analysis and other analysis easily, as opposed to using regular databases with some limited location coordinates, according to Jones.
Cloud technologies have also enabled the growth of GIS in several ways, Jones says. Cloud makes GIS data accessible to everyone. “There’s a living atlas of the world in the petabytes of data, and everyone who uses GIS has access to this data,” including global imagery, environmental data sets and so on.
Data stored in the cloud is another key component. Cloud tools also allow organizations to easily configure applications that leverage that data, Jones says.
“I could show you in a matter of minutes how to build an app with no code, pulling data sets and different things together,” he says. “And it’s very, very easy. The ability to do things like build an app is no longer a programming function. It’s just a capability of the geospatial infrastructure.”
The fourth key technology is application programming interfaces, which enable the configuration of maps and apps against that data infrastructure.
One of the aspects of the evolution of GIS, Jones says, is that this now operates as a configured platform that no longer uses custom code. This helps maintain security standards and saves time.
“You just can’t custom-build systems anymore because it takes too much time to rebuild and rebuild to keep current,” he says. So, you get on a platform with current technology and configure what you need and stay current,” he says, just as smartphone platforms deliver regular software updates.
GIS in Government: How Is It Used?
GIS was born in the 1960s, created by Roger Tomlinson, who built the first GIS for managing environmental and natural resource data for the Canadian government. GIS also developed as a result of work at the Harvard Laboratory for Computer Graphics.
Early on, Jones says, it was called ArcInfo, because ARC was a way to depict graphics and info related to the database. “In the early days, it was a database connected to some graphics,” he says. “So, the early uses in government were for parcel mapping and assisting tax assessors as well.”
In the following decades, as computing power increased and graphical user interfaces grew more sophisticated, GIS evolved and matured into commercial products used by both industry and governments.
“It’s evolved into geospatial infrastructure for managing and sharing data,” Jones says. “By sharing with service, it allows the elimination of duplicated data, where you can share your data but still maintain control of it.”
GIS tools are very useful in government for visualizing and analyzing land parcels, which helps public works departments, planning agencies, emergency response teams and others in state and local government, according to Jones. “And then they share and build on this data asset,” he adds.