Can Geographic Information Systems be used with everything? Ask these questions, or face the Space Wizard!

I love Geographic Information Systems. I love the creativity of programming, database design, and map creation.

I think it is the perfect discipline for a visually creative science minded person with marketing sensibilities.

GIS is wide reaching as a great support tool for multiple industries. GIS can help plan research, aid in problem-solving, organize data, demonstrate statistics, target marketing, and create visualization.

However, there is something that has stuck with me for a long time. A very thoughtful instructor I had said the following:

Geographic Information Systems has a wide reach, but it is not very deep in it’s understanding.

This means to me that GIS can be used pretty much anywhere (maybe), but doesn’t have much depth to its use.

GIS software in also becoming ubiquitous in the work place. With the ease of use and download of open source software, GIS is beginning to be part of the furniture.

I spoke with a friend who is in the security supply industry. I mentioned GIS could help his business and he said “Oh ya, we have a guy in the office doing that”.

By “Doing that” me meant using Google maps to plan out routes and google earth to show address clusters. Not the most sophisticated GIS, but GIS none the less. This got my creative juices flowing!

A few months ago I was asked on my YouTube channel if GIS could be used for chemistry by a person who worked in a lap. My knee jerk reaction was to say “Of course!”

After a few weeks of contemplation I realized that my automatic reactions about GIS may not be true. In fact, the following is most likely the real answer.

GIS is not a solution for everything.

Sad I know, but GIS really isn’t a fit-all solution.

But how do we know that GIS is not a solution in specific cases?

On a philosophical level a single answer to everything is an answer to nothing. Simple singular answers, while comforting, creates dogmatic views. A dogmatic view will shoehorning every inconsistency into its narrative, no matter how absurd.

In the 1999 Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” Professor John I.Q. Nerdelbaum Frink Jr. (yes I had to look that up), asks Lucy Lawless from Xena a continuity error questions to which she response:

“A Wizard Did It” or in many other cases “A space Wizard did it” or… a “GIS Wizard”

You can view the clip here.

A simplistic answer such as “GIS can work for you” is not always true. GIS could get in the way of making quick, easy and correct decisions.

How can we find out if GIS will be useful for situations?

We can start with a brief look at the scientific method of course.

A simple Scientific Method diagram.

As a long time researcher and academic I appreciate the scientific method. First and foremost it allows us to make mistakes, correct our methods, and try again.

Mistakes are okay to make, mistakes allow you to grow, ask better questions, and make better decisions. To find out if GIS can work for our problem, we can ask a few questions.

Is your data geographically referenced and is the referencing important?

This is obvious in many cases such as surveying buildings, street lights and fire hydrants where location is critical. But not so obvious when thinking in a business context.

A friend of mine owned a car body shop. He knew how many people came through his doors, what work they needed done, and how much they paid. But he did not have their addresses, even for marketing purposes.

Address for a business are important to be able to understand where your customers are coming from. They allow a business owner to target areas for marketing.

Is your data affected by the shape of the earth and other surface features?

When I was doing field survey design, the standard practice was to make flat lines on a map and let field workers decided where to go. The field dealt with the hills, we dealt with the lines.

The slope limitations of equipment is a affected by the shape of the earth.

Turns out that using Lidar for pre-planning is important for cost assessment, project analysis, and safety.

Do customers addresses mater in this context? Possibly if you are delivering packages and need to know routes.

Do you have multiple different geographically referenced data sets from multiple disciplines?

More geographically reference data increases the need for a system to compile and analyses the data. In the case of my friend and his body shop, perhaps only his clients address were important, making GIS a very small factor in his operations.

In the case of a geological survey, you would have roads, slopes, geochemistry, hydrography, ecology, and the list can go on.

Does your geographically referenced data have different attributes?

My parents had an arborist come out and look at taking down an old dead tree from their front yard. As a GIS person I got to thinking, how could this arborist use GIS?

You can find out a lot about trees if you just ask.

They could use a mobile app to take notes of locations of trees in a block they visit. Each tree could have attribute of “type”, “age”, “height”, “trim required”, “removal required”. These attributes could easily drive a marketing plan for the neighborhood.

It takes asking questions, creatively formulating a hypothesis, and testing that hypothesis before GIS is a solution to everything.

The more I think about it… the more I think GIS can drive some serious cash flow with some spatial creativity.

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