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Digital Geography
Apr 1, 2000

"Knowing where things are and why is essential to rational decision making."
Jack Dangermond

Geography matters in almost everything we do, where we live, where we work, and the decisions we make about our environment. By the middle of the twenty-first century, it is estimated that 12 billion people will be living on this planet. This means that our planet will be hard-pressed to meet all our food, water, and fuel needs. Thus, managing each limited natural resource has emerged as perhaps the most crucial problem that we will face in the near future. Fortunately, technologies are becoming available for everybody and may allow us to feed and power the growing population without destroying the environment.

In today's global community, more information helps you to make an easy and informed decision when it comes to interacting with the high-tech world. Currently, information comes in many different ways from the private and public sectors, such as reports and statistics, digital photos, and multimedia.

In today's complicated and global world, private and governmental organizations and individuals must daily solve problems in a vast array of areas. Business concerns have to deal with advertising, direct and target marketing, facility management, financial services, manufacturing, insurance, retail siting, and property management. Local governments face issues related to community development, construction, crime analysis, demographics, education, emergency services, environmental management, land management, and tourism. The federal government has to concern itself with all aspects of health care, military and defense, natural resources, oil and gas, pipelines, public health, public information, public safety, tax assessment, and intelligence. And these are only a few of the areas requiring decisions.

All these actions happen in a geographic location and affect each other. How can we solve these complicated problems? How can we collect data and analyze it? More important, how can we devise appropriate solutions? Today, we have the technology to solve these kinds of problems: Geographic Information System (GIS).

The history of GIS is relatively short. The first GIS development and application started in Canada during the 1960s. Due to its dependence on computers and its limited capabilities, GIS technology developed simultaneously with computers. Along with the rapid development of computer capacity after the mid-1970s, GIS technology increased rapidly. Since the 1980s, the number of GIS-related companies has increased rapidly. Some of these companies produce data or specialize in producing GIS software and education, and others concentrate on solving problems. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the first satellites (LANDSAT [USA], SPOT [France], and IRSS [India]) designed specifically to collect physical data about the Earth and humanity's impact upon it were launched into orbit. As the vast majority of updateable data was not only for military purposes, but also available for public use, GIS users and developers were able to use it to solve their problems.

GIS has been used to analyze the relationship and patterns of almost all natural phenomena. GIS technology helps its users see patterns that cannot be recognized by just viewing a list or an actual map, for it brings everything together. Working with locational information, GIS has the power to solve problems we encounter every day. Whether GIS users restore habitats, plant vineyards, search for oil, fight wildfires, or measure an endangered species' population, they also can learn more about the ability of GIS to manage natural resources.

How does GIS work?

GIS is a computer-based tool for mapping and analyzing things that exist and events that happen on this planet. In other words, it is a computer system that assembles, stores, manipulates, and displays geographically referenced data. It integrates such common database operations as statistical analysis and query with maps. This ability sets GIS apart from other information systems, and provides valuable data to a wide range of public and private enterprises engaged in planning strategies and managing various infrastructures.

GIS allows people to create powerful maps, integrate information, visualize scenarios, solve complicated problems, present powerful ideas, and develop effective solutions. It is a tool that can be used by almost everybody: individuals, organizations, schools, governments, and businesses.

In general, GIS has two components: hardware (a desktop computer or workstation) and software. Its software produces the functions and tools needed to store, analyze, and display geographical information. The essential software components are tools to enter input and manipulate geographical information, a database management system (DBMS), tools to support geographic query, analysis and visualization tools, and geographic data that GIS can ingrate spatial data with others.

Essentially, GIS is a type of software application, running on a stand-alone computer or workstation, that analyses and displays multiple layers of geographic information. It can be though a spatial database. First, geographic locations on the Earth's surface can be stored in computer files as sets of mathematical coordinates. This makes it possible to draw a map on a computer-a map of the world, the Amazon Basin, or your neighborhood. Second, it means that different map files or layers of spatial information with common geography can be displayed simultaneously and analyzed with reference to one another. On an agricultural map, for example, one layer can represent the land's boundaries, another one can show the local streams, and still another can illustrate any changes in elevation. The analytical power of GIS lets people query the system to extract information from different layers.

GIS also is related to, and shares common features with, several other types of information systems. It can be used by desktop mapping, DBMS, computer-aided design (CAD), and global positioning system (GPS)/remote sensing GIS.

Today, GIS can be used for almost anything. However, its major users are utility companies (gas, electric, and water), cable and television companies, transportation networks (finding the quickest way and service areas on the roads), agriculture (planning crops, analyzing yields, planning the efficient application of fertilizers), federal agencies (USDA, NRCS, NGS), municipalities (urban planning), forestry (timber harvest and growth, roads in the forests, cutting and removing logs, environmental regulations, forest management), delivering products, educating children, and targeting markets. It is useful to botanists and biologists, planners, and petroleum engineers. It also can track customer sales, analyze crime patterns, route delivery truces, display soil types, and find the best location for an expanding business.

Over the past two decades, the development, acquisition, and implementation of GISs has continued to increase. Currently, it is a billion dollar industry in the United States, and is being utilized by both the public and private sector and well as academia. The declining cost of computer software and hardware, the increasingly user-friendly nature of the technology, and its increasing power have caused a rapid increase in the number of GIS uses.

The rapid and continued growth of GIS use in private industry, government, and academia has raised the concern of educational opportunities currently available to GIS practitioners. Since GIS is now a big business that is experiencing rapid growth, many new practitioners seek further education and training. In addition, GIS practitioners have acquired a professional identity that they did not have 20 years ago. GIS analysts, specialists, and project managers have been increasingly demanded both by industry and government.


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