What’s GIS anyways?

GIS is short of Geographic Information Systems: Geographic because the data is represented visually over constraints of space, scale, and resolution; Information because the purpose is to investigate the relationship of the quantifiable and observable with geography; Systems because GIS communicates through various mediums, namely database science, graphic design, coding, statistics, and–why not–art.

If we want to speak broadly, GIS is an umbrella term designing all representation of space: from the celestial map of the night sky painted on the cave walls of Lascaux over 16,000 years ago, to the pirate treasure maps I soaked and creased in my fantastical imagination not too long ago. We draw maps because we need to orient ourselves in practical terms, and in our imagination.

No, the GIS of today is synonym with automated, dynamic, web mapping; the discipline of data science involving standardizing statistic over geographic denominators. How is the ratio between the unemployed population and A gender in X county comparable to the ratio of Y county, of X state? Which New York City homeowners are going to have their flood insurance premiums increase because their homes are now within flood zones as determined by FEMA’s updated flood risk maps post Hurricane Sandy? Where can I find a Trader’s Joe, how do I get there from where I live, and what’s the fastest commute route? These are questions that, on a map, can be answered faster and more concisely than a long and dreary textual description. After all, maps are things we read.

But surely, maps, like printed books and the wristwatch, are things of the soon to be antiquated pasts, joining the distinguished relics of VHS, cord phones, and AOL?

No, on the contrary, we’re dependent on maps (digital and otherwise) more than ever, and they’re becoming smarter. The age of looking at the sky for direction is gone, so we’ve got a part of our work cut out. We’ve the sky peeking at us now.


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