“GIS” is a term used very frequently within the humanitarian sector and stands for Geographical Information System. For many, this conjures up the image of very complicated IT systems. GIS can be a very complex science as it’s the place where maps and big data will meet. In this article, I n this article, I am going to put the potlight on GIS as a concept and explain what GIS is all about. I will also point you in the direction of resources where you can try out GIS for yourself.
GIS is not new
Maps have been in existence for centuries and defined in some dictionaries as “A representation of the earth’s surface or part of it” Maps are more complex than this definition as they go well beyond simple aerial photographs. When drawn in graphical form such as the UK map (left), information can be added about the features. Contours show how steep the hills are, the red shade shows land which belongs to the army and dangerous to enter. Symbols are used to identify items of interest such as a public telephone. A map is therefore graphical information in its own right. Before the computer age, the Graphical Information System would possibly have been a filing cabinet of information which would be used by map makers to make up the maps such as the ordnance survey maps used in the UK.
Maps such as ordnance survey are made for mass production and often referred to as base maps. There are many specialists professions who require specific information to be added to maps .The Aviation industry is a good example where information regarding flight paths, no-fly zones and airfield approaches are overlaid onto standard maps so that pilots can find their way around.
How technology disrupted map making
Specialist maps which contain additional information have mainly been limited to certain professions and would have been expensive to produce due to short print runs. The process of adding additional and new information would be a combination using ink to write new information onto a map, and a method to provide feedback to the original mapmaker so that new information could be included in the next edition of the map. Advances in printing technology and computerised mapping systems has enabled maps containing very customised information to be produced on demand. Large format printers and GIS software has brought the art of mapmaking from the large map makers straight to places where maps will be used. One prime example of where maps are needed in a hurry is during disaster relief.
ESRI is one of the worlds leaving GIS systems and provides software either as an online system or as software loaded directly on a computer.
GIS in action
A good GIS system will have a collection of base maps to which data can be added. Any form of data can be added to maps to be represented as graphical information. In large scale emergency responses, organisations such as MapAction will often deploy GIS volunteers from the mapping industry to create the many maps which will be required as part of the response.
Let’s look at an example;
In 2008, Cyclone Nargis passed through SW Myanmar and affected the population in the delta. MapAction used a combination of satellite imagery and aerial photography to produce the map of the affected areas. The map to the left shows the areas affected by flood (illustrated by red shade) and the path of the cyclone (blue line).
In any emergency the initial maps will display basic information about what damage has been done and what populations have been affected. This information is vital for emergency response organisations as they will be able to use the maps to make decisions about where relief efforts need to be focused.
As the response develops, coordination bodies such as UN OCHA, national and local government will require “WWW” information (Who is providing assistance, Where they are working and What services they provide).
Data can be a challenge
The key challenge faced by map makers is the wide range of data formats people use for different purposes. The basic data about who is doing what and where, is normally the starting point a later on, other people will begin to collect monitoring and evaluation data which can also be used to build maps.
Whilst ESRI’s ArcGIS products have emerged almost as the industry standard tool to create maps, in the same was as Microsoft Word is the system of choice to create documents, the journey towards identifying a suite of tools for collecting data is still being made. Data collection is recognised as an issue and each year, new initiatives are launched to solve the issue. The problem is that many of these initiatives are looking at the same set of issues. I feel that it would be more fruitful if the various organisations looking at data collection could start to work together in order to define a new standard for data collection and create a suite of tools to collect it?
Does ESRI have the solution?
Amongst the many data collection initiatives ESRI launched a new smartphone application to collect data. The app is available for android and apple smartphones and tablets. The new app is called “Collector for ARGIS” and can be configured with forms to collect information for ARCGIS maps. This new app was launched using lessons learnt by ESRI during the Ebola crisis in West Africa.
The screenshots below shows a form used to collect information about damage to properties and how families were affected by an Earth quake. If the smartphone is online, the data is immediately sent to ESRI servers for so that people can see the most up to date situation as data is collected by people on the ground. The apps also work offline and will store data until the field teams reach a place where they can connect to the internet and upload data
Try it for yourself
GIS is the place where data meets mapping. ESRI is often considered as the “Swiss Army Knife” of GIS systems has it has so many tools available. Argis Online (http://www.esri.com/software/arcgis/arcgisonline), is an internet resource where it’s possible for people to create their own maps and share them with others. Anyone can sign up with a Public account which allows people to create basic maps. Public accounts have limited features but it’s possible to create maps and manually overlay text and shapes. A fully featured account includes many data tools. It’s possible to explore the advance functions by signing up for a 60 day trial. In the example below, a map has been created which shows expected radio coverage from two radio stations.
Whilst GIS is a well-established discipline with ESRI considered as the leading system, there remains some challenges around the task of collecting data. I would like to think that the new ArcGIS collector is showing some promise and as it is designed by ESRI, the prospect of a standard turnkey system which collects data and produces the same maps will make the art of GIS a lot more efficient. ESRI has a global footprint of resources which means that support is available in most places and in many languages. There is also a massive amount of online training materials to support ESRI products – much of it free of charge.