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What Are Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and What Are They Used For?

CWanamaker is an engineer, thinker, and philosopher ready to explore all facets of life.

Geographic Information Systems, or GIS for short, are computerized database systems that can add an extra dimension to your stored information. GIS can be thought of as a system that combines maps and information in one easy-to-read venue, using an array of software applications. Pretty much any information that someone needs to know can be related to a geographic location. Knowing the spatial relationships between things can help someone obtain a much better understanding of how their interactions actually function in the real world.

Geographic Information Systems visually “layer” or “stack” data so that the user can see a digital reality. For example, a detailed GIS setup could allow you to view aerial photographs, roadways, property lines, city boundaries, water and sewer connections, and even building outlines. These items can be sorted, manipulated, and symbolized to help the user understand important information that they may not have previously known. Simply put, GIS enables us to do things that were impossible in the past.

Data Structure of GIS

In a Geographic Information System, a real-world object, called a feature, is represented by a collection of spatial data stored in a file. When a collection of features is visualized on the computer screen, you are seeing a “layer” of spatial data symbolized for us to understand. All features usually have attributes associated with them as well. Attributes are simply the key information about the features that you may want to know.

For example, if you had a data set that showed the locations of all of the restaurants in a town, the attributes could store information such as hours of operation, average price, restaurant type, or anything else that you could think of relating to restaurants. A GIS user can utilize the attributes to categorically display the information in a meaningful way. Continuing with the example restaurant location data, the user could divide up the features into categories based on if they are open at 1 a.m. or not. This can then be visually displayed on a map to show all the dining establishments that are open late. Alternatively, the user could exclude those restaurants from a map if they wanted to.

Who Uses GIS?

It is a fact that GIS affects everyone’s life even though they may not realize it. Since location is extremely important in our world, GIS can be used in any profession, business, or field of study. Here are some examples of who uses GIS and what they can do with it.


Police agencies utilize GIS information to develop efficient patrol routes, locate criminals, and even predict the location of future crimes. If you want to see a great display of the power of GIS in law enforcement, check out

This map was created in a GIS mapping program and shows 3G coverage areas as well as current 4G markets.  Maps like this are a great way that businesses can visually connect with their customers.

This map was created in a GIS mapping program and shows 3G coverage areas as well as current 4G markets. Maps like this are a great way that businesses can visually connect with their customers.

Businesses & Marketers

Businesses can benefit greatly by utilizing GIS technology. Marketing specialists can gather spatial information available in the system to develop a targeted advertising campaign. Businesses looking to expand can find the best location to place a new office, retail store, or distribution center. The shipping industry also benefits by having information about delivery routes stored in computers. GIS technology used in a business setting has been proven to save money and increases efficiency.


Weather forecasting requires GIS technology to display, relay, and disseminate important information to the public. In addition to this, weather prediction systems typically run in a GIS environment. Spatial information is required to calculate and render future weather patterns. Weather maps would not be possible with GIS technology.

Land Developers and Planners

When a developer decides they want to turn raw land into a profitable use, GIS helps them visualize their dream before any dirt is actually moved. Users can look at proposed building sites and determine their viability for development. Relationships between adjacent structures and features can also be determined in a GIS environment. Land use planners can develop a clear vision of the future based on an accurate representation of the present.

This land subsidence map was create using GIS software.

This land subsidence map was create using GIS software.

Scientists and Engineers

GIS technology can be employed to help with almost any task a scientist or engineer would need to tackle. Air quality information, disease outbreaks, water quality data, land subsidence, and earth fissure information are just some of the things that can be modeled, stored, and represented in a geographic information system. Disasters such as hurricanes and floods can also be modeled and visualized on computer screens. The possibilities are endless.

Careers in GIS

As the world integrates GIS into the inner workings of everyday life, more and more analysts and technicians will be needed to run and manage these systems. The geospatial industry is one of the fastest-growing industries in the United States today.

An entry-level GIS analyst position doesn’t normally require much more than a bachelor’s degree or certificate in GIS technology. Many colleges and universities now have programs dedicated to educating people on how GIS works and what its capabilities and uses are. To have a career in GIS, you need to be well-versed in basic geographic concepts as well as computers.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.


Ingenira on October 21, 2012:

Interesting write up.