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The future of the GIS: Much more than just maps

Ben Fisher, RSK business development and knowledge transfer lead for GIS

To many people, a geographic information system (GIS) is just a convenient way to represent geographical data in a graphical format – essentially, a database that can print the pictures they need. But there is much more than this behind the acronym. A GIS captures, stores, manipulates, analyses, manages and presents all types of geographically referenced data. This enables industries and agencies to plan, design, engineer, build and maintain modern infrastructure.

Industry

Use of GIS

Forestry

Listing and managing resources

Police

Mapping crime to target resources

Epidemiology

Linking clusters of disease to sources

Transport

Monitoring routes

Utilities

Managing pipe networks

Oil

Monitoring ships and managing pipelines

Central and local government

Gathering evidence for funding and policy

Health

Planning services and health impact assessments

Environment agencies

Identifying areas at risk from, for example, flooding

Emergency departments

Planning the quickest routes

Retail

Selecting store locations

Marketing

Locating target customers

Military

Managing troop movements

Mobile phone companies

Locating masts

Land Registry

Recording and managing land and property

Estate agents

Locating properties that match certain criteria

Insurance

Identifying risk

Agriculture

Analysing crop yields

A selection of GIS applications

RSK recognises and values the role that a GIS plays in environmental consultancy. A modern GIS provides a fast and efficient way to combine and analyse many different data types, which leads to better-informed decision making. On a pipeline project, for example, the GIS model will typically handle ecological, environmental, archaeological, historical, site investigation and engineering data and information. Bringing this together in a single framework that can be shared and visualised by a multidisciplinary team is a key contribution to project success.

A GIS also helps to answer fundamental questions about project viability. On a wind farm planning project, ground slope limits where turbines can be built. A GIS can help users to eliminate areas where construction will be impossible, thereby helping to focus survey efforts, resources and decisions on the relevant locations.

Data sources

The first step in creating a GIS is to gather the relevant high-level data. This generally involves information in the public domain. In the UK, GIS professionals can access data from bodies such as Natural England or the Environment Agency to define issues such as the presence of monuments, listed buildings, ecologically sensitive areas and other listed sites. Sourcing these data in other countries can be more challenging.

At this stage, the emphasis is on finding the showstoppers: the issues that would make it necessary to substantially amend the project. Changing a project at an early design stage means that any mitigation required could be embedded into the design.

Once the high-level data have been collected, the focus shifts to gathering field data and discipline experts adding their observations to the GIS.

Recent developments

Over the past few years, the emphasis has been on systems that enable workers to capture digital data in the field and provide more efficient transfer from field to office. A mobile GIS integrates three essential components: global navigation satellite systems, rugged handheld computers and GIS software. Bringing these technologies together makes the enterprise database directly accessible to field-based personnel whenever and wherever it is required.

Another development is the way people access a GIS. Increasingly, data is shared through web-based architecture rather than being located on a single server. This helps to keep information up to date and means that all the authorised users have access to the current data model.

New challenges

As with all data-management projects, quality is the key to an effective GIS. Whenever pre-existing data is added to a GIS, the details concerning the data, for example, scale or coordinate system, must be known. The INSPIRE (Infrastructure for Spatial Information in the European Community) Directive requires all public bodies to create metadata (descriptions of the spatial data they make available, i.e., data about data) and to provide access in standard form to datasets that they have collected or created. Commercial users and the general public should get better and more consistent access, though not necessarily free, to a set of products and services that they will find useful in themselves or as resources to which value can be added.

Until recently, remote sensing was seen as a largely academic discipline but RSK is investigating the role that it can play in GIS. Attaching sensors such as cameras, digital scanners or lidar to aircraft and satellites could help us to identify key habitats in less accessible parts of the world.

GIS has become a vital tool for project planning, design and implementation. And that is why RSK is committed to being at the forefront of this fast-moving discipline.

To see how RSK could help you, visit Geographic information systems (GIS).

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