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Geo­graphic infor­ma­tion sys­tems (GIS) can be used for a mul­ti­tude of pur­poses and in dif­fer­ent ways to cre­ate, man­age, ana­lyze and rep­re­sent spa­tial infor­ma­tion. The nature of GIS is built upon a will­ing­ness, inter­est and expec­ta­tion to solve a spe­cific prob­lem using both geo­data and GIS. With so many def­i­n­i­tions float­ing around about what a GIS is together with opin­ions about right or wrong use of the tech­nol­ogy, what do you con­sider to be prac­tic­ing good GIS?”



Let’s be clear from the start. There is no one ‘right’ way for using a GIS. There are, how­ever, approaches that max­i­mize the ben­e­fits when using them. If one uses a GIS to solve a prob­lem and obtains the answer to their ques­tion, then that con­sti­tutes good GIS in my view — plain and simple.

To achieve the solu­tion can take many routes and alter­na­tive direc­tions. This is analagous to reach­ing a des­ti­na­tion from many dif­fer­ent routes. Even so, although the route may be dif­fer­ent, how you make the trip is crit­i­cal to real­iz­ing a plea­sure­able, enjoy­able and use­ful trip, or a night­mare that ends up cost­ing boat loads of cash and tak­ing up valu­able time — and gen­er­ally annoy­ing a lot of other people.

Prac­tic­ing good GIS means sev­eral things. Even the most immac­u­late and daz­zling tech­ni­cal solu­tion must be jus­ti­fied against a bud­get, client needs and dura­bil­ity over time, usu­ally. Roger Tom­lin­son wrote a book enti­tled ‘Think­ing About GIS’ that aptly sum­marises many con­sid­er­a­tions for GIS projects.

One of the ques­tions that stu­dents often ask me is,“how do I know I am doing GIS right?” Many of them have not had the expe­ri­ence to make mis­takes, expe­ri­ence appli­ca­tion devel­op­ment or to use GIS within a busi­ness set­ting. They some­times feel GIS is daunt­ing because of all the vying resources and knowl­edge involved. Here are a few guide­lines that I think may help. These are things any­one can con­sider when devel­op­ing a project or par­tic­i­pat­ing in GIS appli­ca­tion development.

  • abil­ity to iden­tify the problem
  • abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate the prob­lem to oth­ers and to engage them in the impor­tance of solv­ing it
  • under­stand­ing the nature and char­ac­ter of the problem
  • under­stand­ing not all prob­lems are spa­tial in nature
  • abil­ity to iden­tify tools and needed resources for solv­ing the problem
  • recog­nis­ing one can­not answer all issues and seek­ing alter­nate voices
  • some pro­fi­ciency in the use of tech­nolo­gies for solv­ing the prob­lem, oth­ers will all be more capa­ble in dif­fer­ent areas
  • good GIS means recog­nis­ing and hav­ing a tem­pered approach to iden­tify when you are not focused enough — or los­ing focus
  • keep­ing an eye to alter­nate processes that may gen­er­ate pos­i­tive outcomes
  • tak­ing a “I want to learn” approach
  • devel­op­ing a strat­egy to ensure your answer will be use­ful, mean­ing­ful and can be dupli­cated by oth­ers if necessary
  • doc­u­ment­ing your work as you do it

While it is crit­i­cal to under­stand what a GIS can do; because then it can be imple­mented or aligned to prob­lems, notice that I focused on under­stand­ing the prob­lem — and under­stand­ing how the solu­tion might look.

Being able to crit­i­cally ana­lyze the prob­lem, inter­pret­ing it’s nature and to build a case or direc­tion on solv­ing it is an impor­tant step. This can involve the real­iza­tion that more tal­ent, edu­ca­tion and expe­ri­ence is needed, or more resources of a dif­fer­ent kind. These are all steps toward good GIS. I would sug­gest that com­par­ing one project to another is another valu­able approach for cre­at­ing alter­nate solutions.

Keep your goal in mind. Don’t lose track of it and don’t get lost in the buzz around a tech­nol­ogy with­out under­stand­ing what it can actu­ally do. Expect peo­ple who are sell­ing you a tech­nol­ogy or ser­vice to describe or show you how it can work and be used for your prob­lem. That is fair to expect. Again, this is why you need to know (under­stand) the prob­lem and what you expect to gain from the tech­nol­ogy so you can describe it.

Have fun while solv­ing your spa­tial prob­lem, try alter­nate ideas, brain­storm and ask for advice. This is all ‘good’ GIS. If at the end of the day you are drained and unsure of the result, try a dif­fer­ent approach the next day. Remem­ber — all those peo­ple doing it the same way — are doing it the same way. Be dif­fer­ent and push toward new possibilities.

While there are cer­tain tech­niques and meth­ods for achiev­ing spe­cific results, many of the things that go into good GIS are related to how you think, how you work with other peo­ple and how you ana­lyze a prob­lem. Once these are aligned then you are doing it a use­ful way, and that will get you to the destination.

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Jeff Thur­sotn is edi­tor for V1 Mag­a­zine and V1 Energy Mag­a­zine for Europe, Mid­dle East and Africa and is based in Berlin.

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