What in the world is GIS?

In late August, Hurricane Katrina reminded us that the world we live in is dynamic and often unpredictable.
When nature seems to act without regard for human life and property, it reinforces the point that the more we know about our planet, the better we can respond to natural disasters.
For the growing number of people who are familiar with GIS, or geographic information systems, Hurricane Katrina also confirmed the immense value of this relatively new and growing technology in informing us about our world.
If you do not know what GIS is, think back to some of the images you saw in the newspaper or viewed on television:
•a satellite image of Katrina off the Gulf coast showing the probable path it would take in the next few days;
•accurate 3-D computer models of the extent of flooding before it happened;
•maps of New Orleans identifying residents living in areas of greatest concern; and
•evacuation and rescue plans being carried out based on the best information available on such factors as population, land elevation, and transportation routes.
If you saw any one of these images, then you have seen GIS in action, doing what it does best—making our lives better by giving us access to information about our world.
•What is GIS?
A GIS is more than just your average computerized map or hand-held Global Positioning System (GPS) unit.
A GIS is a collection of tools ranging from computer hardware and software to trained personnel that is used to create, store, update, manipulate, analyze, retrieve, and display geographic data.
In essence, a GIS is simply a way in which the real world is stored and used within a computer-generated space. With the right data and a GIS, users can create and run models to simulate real world events.
From this, real world events like landslides, storms, wildfires, and crime incidences can be modelled before or after they have taken place to determine, for example, potential problem areas and damage cost estimates.
More information on GIS can be found at such websites as www.gis.com, www.esri.com, or www.gislounge.com
To appreciate the value of GIS, imagine you have the momentous task of directing the response to the oncoming disaster of Hurricane Katrina.
Without a GIS, you might start shuffling through stacks of paper maps and charts of information—each one dealing with a particular aspect of the emergency response—and try to develop a co-ordinated response from that.
You would find this to be an overwhelming, time-consuming task. Or, armed with a well-prepared GIS (and your GIS skills), you could ask almost any question and have the results displayed to you on your computer screen:
For instance, where is the hurricane now? Where will it be tomorrow? What is its most likely path over the next few days? What communities are in its path? What is the total population of those communities?
What areas will be flooded if the levee breaks? What nearby communities can house victims safely? Where are the schools and community centres, and how many people can they accommodate?
What transportation routes will still be open after the flooding?
The task is still huge, but good data (such as satellite imagery, census data, elevation data, and ground reports) and good tools (a GIS) make it easier to make good decisions quickly.
•Who uses GIS?
All around the world, more and more people are using GIS to make good geographic decisions. GIS is used every day in numerous industries, including forestry, natural resources management, environmental management, hydroelectricity, oil and gas, emergency services, education, crime investigations, educational facilities, and city governments.
For example, city governments can use GIS to determine land ownership, the placement of new roads or signs, the location of municipal services such as fire hydrants and sewer lines.
The forestry industry, meanwhile, can use the GIS to explore cut blocks, regeneration areas, and areas to harvest.
The use of GIS for emergency services is evident in larger centres as most emergency response vehicles are now equipped with a mobile GIS interface which can assist in the location of addresses, water and gas lines, and access points to reduce response time.
GIS also is used by the general public, mainly online in such services as mapquest.com or Yahoo maps.
•Nov. 16 is GIS Day
GIS Day was created as a way in which GIS vendors and users could showcase real-world applications of GIS to the general public.
Through this, different industries can get together to exhibit their work and highlight the importance of GIS technology.
Nov. 16, 2005 marks the seventh anniversary of GIS Day. It originated as part of the National Geographic Society’s Geography Action initiative, started in the year 2000, and is co-sponsored by several industry leaders.
These included the National Geographic Society, the Association of American Geographers, University Consortium for Geographic Information Science, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Library of Congress, Sun Microsystems, HP (Hewlett–Packard), and ESRI.
For more information on GIS Day, visit http://www.gisday.com
•GIS Day in Fort Frances
This article is the first of a six-part informational series leading up to GIS Day in Fort Frances. A GIS Day event will be held Wednesday, Nov. 16 from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. at Fort Frances High School.
The event will showcase the use of GIS by local businesses such as its sponsors: Abitibi-Consolidated Company of Canada, the Town of Fort Frances, the Rainy River Future Development Corp., the Ministry of Natural Resources, and the Rainy River District School Board.
The event will be open to members of the general public.
If anyone is interested in adding a display or has any questions regarding GIS Day, contact Fiona Ryle at 274-5311 ext. 1289 or Barb Elliot at 274-8649.
And keep watching the Fort Frances Times for more information on GIS.