GIS Center director Keith Weber
Image Credit: Keith Weber

It's a GIS World

Use of the Geographic Information System—GIS—is expanding rapidly, and those who use it say there seems to be no limit to how it can be applied.

GIS is computerized, often multilayered mapping software that "allows us to analyze the world, " explains Keith Weber, M.S., director of Idaho State University's GIS Training and Research Center.

"The real power of GIS is its ability to do spatial analysis, asking questions about how one digital map relates to another one," Weber said. "The types of analysis possible with GIS are really unlimited. The only limiting factor is the data."

The GIS Center's Web site explains GIS succinctly: "A geographic information system (GIS) uses computers and software to leverage the fundamental principle of geography—that location is important in people's lives."

GIS takes the numbers and words from the rows and columns in databases and spreadsheets and puts them on a map. Placing data on a map can highlight where a business has customers, for example, or where leaks are occurring in a water company's distribution system. It enhances the ability to understand, question, interpret and visualize data in ways not possible in the rows and columns of a spreadsheet.

With data applied on a map, it's possible to ask more questions, GIS users say. One can ask the "where, why and how," all with location information on hand.

Examples of the use of GIS abound in the Pocatello area.

"We dispatch the police and fire department using GIS systems," said Dennis Hill, City of Pocatello GIS coordinator. "The use of GIS is just proliferating everywhere, and with applications like TomToms (portable navigational GPS/GIS units in cars) and Google Maps, it is really integrating into the mainstream."

Sometimes its use is proliferating with the same person. Assistant professor of history Sarah E. Hinman, Ph.D., who uses GIS in the University's unique history master's degree program (see accompanying story), previously was a volunteer along with colleagues from the Louisiana State University Department of Geography and Anthropology, which used GIS during the recovery effort following Hurricane Katrina. Hinman, a former resident of Baton Rogue, La., helped develop atlases using GIS data, and used satellite imagery to map 9-1-1 emergency calls.

"GIS is a great tool and a relatively new technology, and it was very useful during Katrina recovery operations," said Hinman. She created a map using GIS that was supposed to turn up on the Today Show, but ended up being used in a presidential briefing.

Closer to home, at least for those calling southern Idaho their home, Bureau of Land Management professionals employ GIS for a variety of analyses.

"Nearly every program in the BLM uses GIS to some degree," says Brian R. Holmes, GIS Specialist in the BLM's Pocatello Field Office. "It has become vital for storing, managing, working with and displaying digital geographic data."

The BLM's most important uses are for its wildfire programs. If a wildfire becomes a "multi-day response event," an Incident Management Team (IMT) may be called in with its own GIS personnel. Fire perimeter boundary data are collected each morning using GPS units, often via helicopter, and then processed and mapped for fire briefings later that afternoon, said Holmes. These maps can include a wealth of important information such as landing zones, hazards, safety zones, water areas, spike camps and attack strategies.

"These data and maps are vital to fire suppression efforts," Holmes said.

GIS wildfire data can be used in other GIS applications. The National Weather Service in Pocatello maps burn-area perimeters to help forecast dangerous and life-threatening flash flooding and debris flows out of burn areas, says Sherrie Hebert, NWS Pocatello Office hydrologist.

"Just this past summer, the Pocatello Forecast Office issued flash flood and debris flow warnings for the Castle Rock burn area near Ketchum, Idaho," Hebert said. "Due to the timeliness of the warnings, the only incident that occurred were some firefighters trapped behind a mud slide in the Warm Springs area for a few hours – an extremely fortunate outcome."

GIS is used extensively by the National Weather Service, which produces maps communicating a variety of information, including real-time maps showing severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings. It also developes 100- and 500-year flood-inundation maps in its Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service (AHPS) applications. In addition to being the official source for U.S. weather and climate information, the NWS is the official flood-warning agency for the United States.

In ways obvious and not, GIS use is proliferating.

Andy Taylor
Idaho State University Magazine


10 Ways that GIS May be a Part of Your Life

  1. Your car. Global Positioning Systems (GPS) functions with GIS to help your navigation system get you where you want to go. Without the GIS, the GPS waypoints would be just be points. Also, those "winter road closure" maps on the news are generated by GIS applications.
  2. Your computer. Google Earth, Yahoo Maps, MapQuest all use GIS extensively to bring you those easy-to-use maps with all the details... and more details... and even more details.
  3. Your bathroom. If you're in Pocatello, or many other communities, GIS is being used to track "a whole bunch of things in the infrastructure" including water, sewer and stormwater monitoring systems, water valves and maintenance schedules.
  4. Your kitchen. See #3 above, and when you pour that water from your tap, give a toast to GIS.
  5. Your television. GIS makes TV more informational with its pervasive use of everything from the Weather Channel to CNN election maps. To present complex information graphically, GIS is hard to beat.
  6. Your vote. Political organizations and political reporting make extensive use of detailed GIS maps, which show who is voting for what and where.
  7. Your heart attack. Many municipalities, including Pocatello and Chubbuck, use GIS to efficiently route 9-1-1 emergency calls.
  8. Your burning house. Yep, if it's on fire, firefighters in many cities will be directed to your home using GIS and GPS technologies.
  9. Your burglary. Police departments are using GIS to respond to 9-1-1 calls, and to plot and graph crimes to determine trends and complete other crime analysis.
  10. Your pizza. Delivery companies, including some pizza companies, use GIS extensively to route deliveries fast and effectively.