Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping is the practice of turning geographic data into usable visual references for analysis. The modern process of GIS mapping incorporates various tools, including computer hardware and GIS mapping software, to accomplish this objective. GIS mapping software specifically enables a user to quickly refine raw information into usable data. The end product can be utilized in a wide range of applications, from scientific land surveying to urban planning and development.
At its core, GIS is the application of maps and map data to solve real-world problems. This does not necessarily mean electronically, though that has become increasingly implicit in the 21st century. In fact, however, the idea of using maps to solve problems has existed for years. The first known application of this was related to tracing a cholera outbreak to a single water well in Victorian London.
The development of computer technology, beginning in the 1950s, greatly advanced the depth and scale of the ways in which GIS mapping could be used. Since that time, it has become ubiquitous and GIS mapping tools are used every day by millions of people. Modern GIS mapping software is generally focused around digitized satellite imagery or physical maps. Specific to GIS purposes, location coordinates and topographical information are added to provide specific geographical references for data.
A basic example of what GIS mapping software can do might involve plugging in the latitudes and longitudes of recent earthquakes into a program, and overlaying that on top of a map of the world. The results would indicate, for instance, that the west coast of the United States is far more prone to earthquakes than the east coast. This data could be a useful factor in determining insurance rates, or structural requirements for new bridge and road construction, among other things.
GIS mapping software is heavily used in the field of demographics. Perhaps the most important single piece of GIS mapping software in the 21st century has been Google Maps®. A free, open source service, it can be used by anyone with coding ability to create so-called mashups of demographic information and map data.
Google Maps® is far from the only GIS mapping software that exists, but its importance lies in the fact that its open source nature has brought GIS mapping to the masses. It has allowed amateur coders to create maps showing the prevalence of crime in particular city neighborhoods, recent lightning strikes, and traffic jams, for example. While perhaps not lucrative enough to prompt a private firm to charge for these things, they can nevertheless be highly useful.
Professional and industry users — such as urban developers, architects, and government agencies — typically use more specialized GIS mapping software that may be more geared to a specific function, rather than the general approach supplied by Google Maps®. This kind of software can cost tens of thousands of dollars, but is necessary to handle the high volume of technical data such use requires. Typically, these kinds of programs require extensive training both to program in and interpret the data that is generated.