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A geographic information system (GIS) is a software program that combines data that can be tied to geographic coordinates with the tools and methods that can transform the information into a powerful analytic tool. GIS technology can layer many types of data, including demographic, statistical, topographic, city infrastructure, or weather-related data, to name a few, onto maps to transform complex data into useful information. Together, the GIS software, data, and methodologies combine to provide a technology called geospatial analysis.
By using geospatial analysis techniques, people have access to a powerful data-modeling and decision-making tool. Geospatial analysis has hundreds of uses, including wildlife management, city planning, facilities management, fleet management, disaster planning, military operations, climate change modeling, and many more. The types of geospatial analysis that can be performed by a GIS program are almost limitless.
It's thought that GIS and geospatial analytical technology were first used in the early 1960s. One of its first uses was to create a digital natural resources inventory for Canada. Since then, its use has skyrocketed, and there are thousands of different GIS packages on the market, and hundreds of GIS-related companies. One of the earlier applications of GIS and geospatial analysis was in wildlife management. By layering wildlife population data, vegetation data, human population data, and other data types onto maps, wildlife management officials can help determine whether a certain area can support the current wildlife population, or whether efforts to control the population need to be undertaken.
Another real-life example of how people are using geospatial analysis is fleet management. Dispatchers can use the technology to determine the closest available driver for a particular delivery. They can use traffic information, street maps, construction data, and other information to provide routing information or predict destination arrival times.
The Gulf of Mexico oil spill, which occurred in April 2010, is an example of its use in disaster planning and recovery. Through satellite imagery, maps, ocean current data, and weather information, scientists can track the spread of the oil and predict where it will go. By having this information, officials can better plan for remedial actions.
Geospatial analysis has also been used extensively by scientists to map the effects and potential threats of climate change. Climatologists can predict the potential effects of climate change on various ecosystems around the globe. The data sources that they use to do this include current and historical climate statistics, aerial photography, satellite imagery, and geographic positioning system (GPS) coordinates.