You’ve heard people say over and over “everything is some place” and “you can organize your world” — all through using GIS. You wonder why some of your friends eyes glass over when they start talking about spatial information and GIS, thinking to yourself “what’s that all about?” So Dude — Does GIS Really Matter Anyhow — Why?
Geographic information systems (GIS) are about three main things — people, change and quality of life. Each of these can be articulated and extrapolated in many ways to include numerous factors. But at the end of the day GIS connects them together.
To learn about GIS as a tool is one facet of beginning to understand the power and possibilities that you can make on the world. I would be willing to bet five dollars of Matt Ball’s money that I could explain more about the world to you upon sitting down together with a GIS to communicate it, than I could by simply talking to you. In fact, using a GIS I could literally bring the world to your eyes better than any other medium — even television. You would see yesterday, today and tomorrow.
And if you have a question about something somewhere I would likely be able to provide you with a close answer, and likely some guidelines about where you could look for more information.
We often talk about the ‘place’ part of GIS, often associating that with a map or other graphic. And as important and useful as that is, building your career and the possibility of life long employment upon the knowledge of how to take a GIS tool and knowledge and solve a problem important to other people, probably has more value to your life than learning vague topics that leave you disconnected from understanding how the world works.
Don’t you want to know why water is clean? Where the good food is? Where different kinds of music evolved from?How to make trains more efficient? How to help people avoid disease, hunger and death?
There are many more questions that one can ask and a GIS can help to solve.
When you are watching your friends go all GIS geek like and get excited when they talk about GIS, what you are witnessing, though you may be unaware, are people who grasp the idea that GIS tools open doors to possibilities — to connect and let the world echo back to you the replies to your thoughts.
Some people say that one does not need to learn GIS. I suppose that is true — dude.
But one does not have to learn to swim, drive or ride a bike either.
And you know what? One of the most powerful things you can learn today is about connecting that phone you carry around in your pocket to a GIS. Think of what is important to the group of people you hang around with. What do they need to know that they don’t know now?
Does GIS really matter?
I think it does. Picture this. Many people will be using data in the future for all kinds of problem solving. Most of that information will often be presented to them in simplified ways so that they can understand where to put it, inject it or attach it to — something. But far fewer people will actually be developing solutions for real problems, using GIS, that are then made available to hundreds or even thousands of these people.
People who use and understand GIS play an integral role in understanding how the world physically and biologically works, and then conveying that information to many others who enact change. That is a significant and important role that places the technology as a conduit toward positive and real changes that impact people.
How do you know if you are learning GIS right? This is probably going to cause many letters to arrive in my mail, but I think you are doing it wrong if you have not been taught to take what you have learned and to connect it with changing the world for the better. It’s about way more than pushing a button, it is about much more than producing a single map and it is about more than accessing data.
GIS is about how you think about the world, how you participate in it and ultimately what you leave behind.
If you nail these down and understand them, then you will know the power in your hands when you sit at a desk, push the start button and open the first file — dude.
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Jeff Thurston is editor and co-founder of V1 Magazine. He is based in Berlin.