What is a GIS and how do state and local governments use it?

What is GIS?

The US Geological Survey defines GIS as “a computer system that analyzes and displays geographically referenced information” and that “uses data associated with a unique location”.

Jones, who is also the global head of cadastre and land records at GIS Esri, notes more broadly that GIS is a combination of hardware, software, data and analytical tools used to manage data and merge data sets for better decision making.

“There are all kinds of different ways to connect data, and what GIS does is connect data with location,” he says. “So if you know the locations of multiple datasets, you can overlay them and pull out a lot of analysis.”

According to Jones, all data has a spatial component, which GIS leverages. GIS allows agencies to approach issues from a geographic perspective, leveraging location and data internal and external to the system to make more informed and better decisions.

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What technologies enable GIS for government?

There are four key technology components that enable government agencies and other organizations to take advantage of GIS, Jones explains.

The first is the enterprise geodatabase, which is basically a database designed to manage location. According to Jones, it allows organizations to use location and easily perform spatial and other analysis, instead of using regular databases with limited location coordinates.

Cloud technologies have also enabled the growth of GIS in several ways, Jones says. The cloud makes GIS data accessible to everyone. “There is a living atlas of the world in petabytes of data, and everyone who uses GIS has access to that data,” including global imagery, environmental datasets, and more.

Data stored in the cloud is another key element. Cloud tools also make it easy for organizations to set up applications that leverage this data, Jones says.

“I could show you in minutes how to build an app without code, putting together datasets and different things,” he says. “And it’s very, very easy. The ability to do things like create an application is no longer a programming function. It’s just a capability of the geospatial infrastructure.

The fourth key technology is application programming interfaces, which allow maps and applications to be configured against this data infrastructure.

According to Jones, one aspect of the evolution of GIS is that it now operates as a configured platform that no longer uses custom code. This maintains safety standards and saves time.

“You just can’t build bespoke systems anymore because it takes too long to rebuild and rebuild to stay current,” he says. So you get on a platform with current technology and configure what you need and stay up to date,” he says, much like smartphone platforms provide regular software updates.

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GIS in government: how is it used?

GIS originated in the 1960s, created by Roger Tomlinson, who built the first GIS for environmental and natural resource data management for the Canadian government. GIS also developed as a result of work at the Harvard Laboratory for Computer Graphics.

At first, says Jones, it was called ArcInfo, because ARC was a way to represent graphs and database-related information. “At first it was a database connected to graphs,” he says. “So the first uses in government were for plot mapping and assisting tax assessors as well.”

Over the following decades, as computing power increased and graphical user interfaces became more sophisticated, GIS evolved and matured into commercial products used by both industry and government.

“It evolved into a geospatial infrastructure for managing and sharing data,” says Jones. “By sharing with the service, it helps eliminate duplicate data, where you can share your data and still be in control of it.”

According to Jones, GIS tools are very useful in government for visualizing and analyzing plots of land, which helps public works departments, planning agencies, emergency response teams and others in state and local governments. “And then they share and build on that data asset,” he adds.

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