Did you know that today is GIS (Geographical Information Systems) Day? Most people wouldn’t even care. But GIS is the backbone of the technology of today. Do you remember when the TV weathermen (occasionally weatherwomen) wrote on huge maps with magic markers? I do. I remember when the idea of a digital map was something for storm trackers or extreme computer nerds. I remember the first time a friend of mine had a laptop that was hooked into storm tracking software and we saw the dot of his vehicle going down I-40.
At that time the only people who had access to the strictly text-based internet were college students and educational professionals. If you knew someone who could get up hooked up with a modem to log into a cryptic database you were up town.
Even when maps originally started being digital they were basically computer drawn paper maps. It was cool if you could change certain layers to different colors and overlap data for visual effects but there were no real analysis capabilities.
I became a GIS Technician in 1997, during the paper to the digital era. We printed map grid pages in books that kept up with where utility lines and other features such as valves, regulating stations, electric poles, fire hydrants, etc. were statically located.
Fast forward to today. Everyone knows how much wonderful map data is available due to Mapquest, Google Map, and Google Earth. Everyone has a phone, tablet or other electronic devices that can tap the internet for the latest updates. Hardly anyone uses a folding paper map or Atlas book to plan a vacation. They zip on the internet and in a few minutes they have a route, where the gas stations, hotels and restaurants are and the time and amount of gas it will take to get there.
GIS Day and Earth Day are times when GIS Specialists such as myself, instructors, innovators community leaders and others get together to demonstrate to the public how digital maps are changing the world of data collection and storage. The creation powerful databases that connect live information to points, lines, polygons, and to aerial photography overlays to address, parcel, utility and other relevant data. Last year the big thing was carrying an Ipad into the field to collect data or collecting data from a cell phone rather than carrying a clunky GPS (Global Positioning System) unit and antenna that was akin to a huge Ghost Busters pack.
This year, drones for data collection. Our city actually owns a drone that can map areas of new constructions with amazing accuracy in real time. If you need building footprints for a new apartment complex and don’t want to have to wait years for commercial aerial information, you take the drone out to map the area.
When you look at the weather maps today, they have live cameras collecting data that can immediately be reported on a map for storms, traffic jams, traffic accidents, or planning for special events. There are maps for crime data, sexual offender data, aerials for parks and other specific data. Real estate agents are able to provide video walk-thrus for homes for sales or business office areas for rent or sale that are attached to features on a map. Ambulances and other emergency services are able to respond quickly to save lives, by finding exactly on the map where they are and the most efficient route to where they need to be.
Maps today aren’t just static digital representations of features on a computer screen. Maps are tied to almost every facet of our world with powerful databases of information to track everything from watersheds to endangered animals from mosquito outbreaks to school bus routes from community planning to record historical community information.
If you missed your area’s GIS Day or Springtime Earth Day, maybe try to drop in your state, city, county, country or other divisions internet pages to see the wonders of what your area GIS people are putting out for public use.