This isn’t your grandmother’s geography class–or your mother’s, for that matter. GIS is powerful software that’s changing the landscape of technology. But prior to Sept. 11, GIS, or Geographic Information System, was almost unheard of in the general public.
Why the sudden buzz? “Recent world events have significantly heightened the importance of the need to understand all of the systems, infrastructure, and design of everything that contributes to our communities, our livelihoods, and our safety,” says Earl McDowell Jr., 29, a St. Louis-based urban planner and mapping consultant. Quite simply, GIS “helps you gather as much information as possible to make certain determinations; it brings the essence of geography to the mainstream.”
GIS is hardware, software, and a collection of geographic data that helps the user capture, store, manipulate, analyze, and display all forms of information. If this all sounds a bit complicated and high-tech, consider that everyday we witness examples of GIS in action. Government agencies have been using it to collect data on crime patterns to determine where and how to focus their efforts. And if you’ve seen the CBS drama The District, you’ve likely seen GIS in action (called COMSTAT on the show). Everyone from farmers to builders to marine biologists uses the technology, helping to spur the billion dollar GIS software industry. In fact, when you watch the weather forecast on TV, you’re witnessing GIS technology in action in the form of maps and satellite images.
Now, more people are interested in where they are and where they’re going, says McDowell, who has been using the technology for nine years. He says that the technology has gained attention not just because of the attacks but also because the technology is finally catching up to the field. “You need a pretty robust computer to do this–one with at least 512MB of RAM and a 1.2GHz processor,” says McDowell. “You can expect to invest at least $20,000 for a full-scale operation,” which is exactly what he’s done, adding that it’s a wise investment. “The technology will explode, especially with the new emphasis on homeland defense. And wireless technology is making GIS more pervasive,” he adds.