GIS is an integral tool set for conducting business and many tasks and operations in society today. It is hard to imagine running an electricity grid, performing land management over a wide area or working with environmental information without a GIS today. Like financial systems or human relations functions, GIS are embedded throughout daily life in many ways. Without them we would be reduced to slow moving paper trails and awkward database operations. Our level of understanding business and operational processes would be significantly less.
Stop and imagine
A world without GIS is a strange place. It is important to stop and assess what is happening from a different angle sometimes. We are easily engulfed in why we should be using spatial information tools and technologies, but how often do we stop and turn around and look at where we have already used them – and if they were not available? What if all the applications you employed these tools on during the last two years did not happen?
Hmmm… are you scratching your head yet? Besides the obvious fact that you probably would not have a job, or at least not in a GIS related field, the obvious first conclusion would be that it is very hard to imagine. In fact, some of the tasks we do today would not even be possible, or at least they would be severely restricted.
Many environmental applications involving GIS involve large areas. Not only is the amount of spatial data for them large, but the handling of the information requires efficient and scaleable tools that enable them to be seen, understood and processed in an easily accessible way. The coupling of graphics (a map) enables many operations to be seen and understood quickly, particularly when coupled to a database. This means graphics enable operations, can query them and visualise them – decisions can be made upon the images presented because they represent data.
Without a map, it would be very hard to imagine an understanding, for a larger area, that coupled soil nitrogen to crop yield, for example. It would be difficult to appreciate geology and aquifers together and it would be near impossible to understand, in real-time, many environmental impacts spatially. The relationship of digital elevation models to biodiversity would be hard, if not impossible, to calculate and understand and there would be no way to connect GPS data to water flow, infiltration and meteorological factors.
Did you say that you could draw all these in a non-digital manner? On paper or acetate? Good luck. I wish you well. Isn’t that kind of data creation the major reason why little collaboration and islands of disparate data have come to exist in the first place? You can wave goodbye to mashups, goodbye to collaboration and goodbye to SDI, without GIS.
Trains would still be operating. Buses would be running and airplanes would be flying. We would probably have vague ideas where the population lived in relation to these services, based on data 20 years old because we cannot construct the maps by hand fast enough, or even track residential development rapidly.
Although train and traffic lights and other electrical infrastructure might operate fine, based on sensors, we would not have an actively operating overall system to visualise (at least beyond a bunch of lights flashing on a panel to signal locations – half of them burned out most of the time).
I seriously doubt we would even be talking about energy efficient car travel based on road congestion. Moreover, half or more of all LBS companies probably would not exist, but at least everyone would know where their own car is (by coordinate) – although it could not be shown on a map on your dashboard.
Health and disease
Without GIS I suspect that BSE would be travelling everywhere, avian flu would be prevalent in most places and we would not really have a good grasp on the state of environmental factors to health and disease. Moreover, we would have few tools for relief efforts that could effectively evaluate them and assess them, helping to decide where to focus resources and how to mitigate response. Insurance companies would be guessing on the details of their customers by location and have no real idea as to the influences impacting rates, spatially.
Health and disease are major categories for GIS because they significantly assisting to understand AIDS, diabetes, influenza and many other health issues that we have no other way of getting our minds around spatially, without GIS. These tools provide the conduit for action to deal with them in a timely manner that is critical.
Business is greatly impacted by the use and application of GIS. It provides the means to understand where the customer is and his/her relationship to business processes. These tools can track and follow the flow of goods and services and they are able to provide a glimpse into the relationship of the future and potential business impacts. Siting a store or business without a GIS could be an interesting exercise. You would find yourself driving around, or cycling, and watching to see where people are. In your spare moments, time could be spent to find land use zone bylaws and identifying where particularly businesses are permitted. And if you talked to enough people, future transportation development spanning 10 or 25 years could be ascertained. A big binder to hold all this data would be useful, but you might need a truck to carry it all.
Business in terms of a location process cannot exist without the use of GIS. In fact, much of the information used to ascertain the processes would not be available. It would be harder to understand businesses where networks of stores or operations are involved, and it would be near impossible to grasp what your competitor’s are up to. Perhaps one strategy would involve watching them, then doing the same thing …hmm?
In summary, these are only a few observations involving a few sectors that use GIS currently. It is clear that GIS has had a major impact on how we accomplish many tasks and operations today. The technology is embedded into society and it can be seen across a wide variety of places and uses.
The sectors of health and disease without GIS are particularly significant, for obvious reasons. But efficiency and effective contribution to society are everywhere.
Think about this closely.
The future is about what you ‘expect GIS to do’.
These are fitting questions for Halloween, when we’re confronted with all sorts of horrors. Going back to paper, mylar map sheets, and rows upon rows of drafting tables is truly a frightening thought. It’s frightening primarily due to the loss of efficiency and productivity that this would represent. It’s also scary to think that the real-time collaboration that digital tools provide would go away completely, as paper-based maps and plans provide little means for interactivity.
There are a large number of reasons why technology has taken hold to allow us to store, manage and manipulate geographic data on computers. Certainly many jobs that rely on GIS technology can be carried out without it, but many jobs simply wouldn’t exist. GIS has revolutionized our way of working more than simply how we map.
What We Unlock
Instead of rows upon rows of drafters and map makers, the computer now holds all of the data that makes up our definition of a place. But it’s much more than just the data repository that makes GIS revolutionary, it’s the ability to integrate that data, to pull it together and query it for deeper understanding.
GIS technology provides great insight into data, and the relationships of map layers, that we couldn’t have synthesized without this tool. Any person sitting in front of a GIS has the ability to manipulate how they view that data, and to unlock the relationships and links between layers for greater understanding. Without GIS this level of understanding might be the domain of just a few governments or large institutions. GIS democratized our ability to gain geographic insight, and GIS on the Internet is spreading that ability far and wide.
Open access and the ability to analyze map data have done a great service to combat abuse of power, particularly in land development. The nature of these jobs without GIS meant that access to this data provided power. Prior to the ease of information access to land and property information that we have today, a connected few had a far greater advantage to manipulate the development process for their financial advantage. It was also much easier to hide environmental abuse of the land. The advent of geospatial technologies means that we all have the ability to have insight and be stewards of the land without manipulations about the truths of our planet by a knowledgeable few.
Perhaps the scariest aspect of life without GIS technology has to do with project-based work out in the field. The gains in our efficiency are most pronounced when taking digital technologies out of the office to query and deal with issues where they exist. There are a myriad number of workers that collect data and require access to map-based data out in the field, such as surveyors, archaeologists, biologists, foresters, electric utility workers, hydrologists, road workers, etc. All have a need to find the right location, record information about that location, and gain inference from the information that they already know about the area.
Without GIS technologies, such fieldworkers would be required to take great reams of information along with them to even come close to matching the insight they have with this technology. The lack of this tool would mean much greater time spent trying to understand a place or take action with the knowledge that they’ve been handed from the office. The communication capability between field and office would be greatly hampered because conveying knowledge about a place is much harder without giving the worker a way to visualize and manipulate that information themselves.
Having information out in the field, and accurately updating details when and where they occur, are one of the primary advantages of modern GIS. Going back to notes that then had to be typed into the system back at the office (often times by someone else, if it’s a business setting) means that much of the field reality gets lost. We have a much better understanding of our planet by having these tools in our hands in the field.
Thankfully, the GIS genie is out of the bottle, and it’s not going back. Rather than moving backward toward old ways of doing things, it seems that every week there’s a new technology that bends our minds to adjust the way we’re doing business, and to expand the tools to an ever widening audience. Just this week Google added the Google Earth application to Apple’s iPhone, effectively placing rich and interactive digital map exploration right in the palm of anyone’s hand.
Rather than exploring ways of dealing without GIS, I’m glad we have the problem of trying to take full advantage of all the great GIS technology that we have.
If we lost all the technology, would there still be geospatial insight?