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Top 15 Uses for GIS

June 18th, 2018 by Josephine Hatton


Wait, what?  What is GIS?

GIS stands for Geographic Information Systems.  It refers to mapping technology that brings together hardware (computers, mobile devices, GPS units) and specialized software to collect, analyze, and model data about the world around us.  It has almost unlimited applications in the public, private, and non-profit sectors. 

  1. Mapping municipal, state, and federal infrastructure 

GIS is an excellent tool for mapping various types of infrastructure at a range of scales, allowing the user to see them all in their relative locations, with all their associated data.  



With GIS a town can make a map showing the location, diameter, material, age, and flow direction of all the water conduits under their streets, along with hydrants, valves, pump stations, catch basins, outfalls, and so on.  

State governments use GIS to map all their state highways and bridges showing capacity, pavement type, age and condition, so that they can identify roads or bridges that need attention.  At the federal level, GIS is used to map public lands, natural resources, regional wildlife habitats, federal highways, and census data of all kinds, allowing officials to monitor the state of the environment on a large scale and follow demographic trends. 

 2. Public health

In the field of public health, GIS can be used to track reported cases or outbreaks of disease, and also the conditions which can potentially lead to disease.  Digital maps can be updated in real time to deliver current information to public health officials and decision makers as their response efforts are underway.

3. Highway safety                                                                                                               

Everyone knows of a few roads, corners, or intersections that are notorious for accidents.  Highway departments can use GIS to map where accidents occur, along with information about their causes.  The maps reveal patterns where accidents caused by the same factors occur frequently.  Steps can then be taken to eliminate those specific factors in each location.  GIS allows the trouble spots to be quickly highlighted and supports informed decisions about further safety measures such as traffic-calming structures or improved road markings.

4. Law enforcement

Police departments and law enforcement officials use GIS to map reported crimes in order to identify areas most at risk for criminal behavior.  Those areas can then be targeted with intervention programs, job training, and employment assistance.  They can also use real-time, mobile GIS when monitoring and assessing public safety during public events such as a political rally or sporting event.

5. Fire risk assessment

As climate change proceeds and many forests begin to see drier conditions, fire becomes a greater risk.  At the same time, the growing population places a premium on homes near or adjacent to forested public land.  The combination means that more residences are at risk by forest fires that begin on national, state or local conservation lands.  GIS can be used to combine information about development, roads (which create fire breaks), hydrants, population centers, forest conditions and topography, to create a composite image of the risk posed by fires originating on nearby forested public lands.

6. Solar potential

Solar panel installations are becoming increasingly popular with both private citizens and public officials as a way to offset the expense and carbon footprint of more traditional energy sources.  But not all rooftops or highway cloverleaves are suitable for an installation.  GIS can leverage the high resolution topographic data provided by LiDAR to determine the angle of the slope on any given site or rooftop, as well as the compass direction in which the slope faces.  This information, along with data indicating the height of surrounding trees or other structures, influences the amount of solar energy the site can be expected to receive and thus, the suitability for a solar installation on that site.

7. Assessors’ data

Every town assessor knows the importance of maintaining accurate and timely records of land parcels in their town.  GIS is a convenient way to map and edit parcel boundaries, measure areas and distances, and maintain all the data associated with each parcel such as owner, land valuation, structures, easements, and so on.  A GIS database of parcel information can be accessed by municipal officials for the purpose of updating and editing, and also made available to the public for parcel searches online.

8. Agriculture

Many farms operating today use GIS to map their fields in fine detail, identifying soil types, moisture and nutrient levels, and other parameters that influence crop growth.  Then they can irrigate and apply fertilizer where it will do the most good, saving money and time by not wasting their resources where they are not needed.  Using these maps that show growing conditions, the farmers can also anticipate which parts of a field will be ready for harvest first and which areas may need a little more time.

9. Post-disaster evaluation and recovery

After a major storm, flood, earthquake or other destructive event, GIS is a useful tool for evaluating the extent of damage and the condition of roads and other transportation infrastructure.  The data collected from aerial surveys, ground-based evaluations, local officials, and even social media messages can be used in GIS can facilitate informed decisions about how best to provide emergency supplies to residents.  It can also help to develop plans for recovery and rebuilding efforts by indicating where the damage is greatest and unsafe conditions may still exist.

10. Retail/marketing

When a retail organization is considering where to build a new bricks-and-mortar store, they often use GIS in their decision.  First, using demographic data available from the US census, they identify the communities where their target audience is most concentrated.  Then, with GIS data layers showing zoning, roads, and speed limits, they can pinpoint commercial-zoned districts that are within a specified time’s drive of those communities over good-quality roads.  Those are optimal places to build for access to their target audience.

11. Watershed management

As growing populations and climate change together put pressure on water resources, it becomes increasingly important to understand and monitor these resources responsibly.  GIS can be paired with widely available elevation data as an indispensable tool kit for mapping the hydrologic conditions of surface water within a watershed.  By this technique, flooding can be more easily predicted and mitigation measures put in place.  GIS can also be used to monitor the quantity and quality of groundwater resources on which local municipalities depend.

12. Wetlands delineation and management

Wetlands represent a critical ecosystem influencing the vigor and diversity of local biota, and act as a filter for surface water delivered by stormwater runoff and flooding.  GIS can leverage drone footage or other aerial photography, showing vegetation height and type, to supplement in situ delineations of wetland boundaries.  It is used to map flooding conditions, track the spread of invasive species, and coordinate restoration and conservation efforts.

13. Wildlife habitat fragmentation and restoration

As the US population grows and development sprawls across more of the landscape, wildlife habitats are being broken up into separate patches with no connections from one to the next.  For species that naturally migrate seasonally in search of food or a mate, this fragmentation poses a problem that can threaten their survival. 





Wildlife biologists use GIS to map these remaining habitat patches and develop ways to connect them, either by creating a protected corridor such as a highway underpass, or by restoring some of the habitat such as wetlands, to allow safe migration routes through the developed areas.

14. Climate change as it affects flora and fauna

The changes we can now observe in our climate have a profound effect on the natural environment around us.  Here in the continental US, animal species that prefer cooler conditions are moving north or upslope.  Even trees—not individual trees of course!, but tree species as a whole—are gradually following the cooler temperatures north or moving toward regions that are not drying out as much.  Meanwhile, other species that normally live elsewhere are migrating into the area for the first time.  All this means a gradual shift in the species arrays in a given region.  This shift can be mapped and tracked over time using GIS to evaluate the rate of change, and identify correlations between the climate and the direction and rate of species migration.

15. Mapping demographics to track or predict trends

The US Census Bureau uses GIS intensively in their mission to quantify and evaluate hundreds of variables of the American population.  Mapped census data can show population migrations into or out of certain areas, shifts in age or economic profile across different regions, trends waxing or waning.  Knowing the age and the geographic origin of people moving into a certain city, for example, allows Census officials to measure the effect of immigration on the labor market and the demand on elder services in that city.


For more information on GIS and how CEI utilizes it in our client services, feel free to contact Josephine Hatton at jhatton@ceiengineers.com

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Posted in the categories About CEI, Surveying, Technology.