Breaking Down the Basics of Geographic Information System and Science

Yingjie Hu, Assistant Professor at University at Buffalo's Department of Geography addresses key questions on GIS and its impact on the future.

09 May 2019

5 mins read

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The global market of Geographic Information System and Science (GIS) is growing at an exponential rate as businesses across a wide range of industries leverage on geospatial data to make strategic decisions. Yingjie Hu, Assistant Professor at University at Buffalo’s Department of Geography addresses key questions on GIS and its impact on the future.

How would you describe GIS to someone who is new to it?

GIS refers to both ‘Geographic Information System’ and ‘Geographic Information Science’. From the “System” perspective, GIS is a computer-based system that helps people manage and uses geographic information. It can be as simple as using Google Maps to help an individual find the best route from point A to point B, and it can be as complex as a national geospatial infrastructure that helps multiple government agencies to manage population, land use, and natural resources covering an entire country. From the “Science” perspective, GIS is about the use and development of geospatial analysis methods for understanding our natural and social environment and for addressing various spatial problems.

What is the difference between GIS and Data Science?

Geographic Information Science (GIScience), has a lot of overlapping with Data Science. However, GIScience focuses on developing and using geospatial analysis methods to examine geographic data (i.e. data with locations attached) for knowledge discovery. In this sense, GIScience has a strong emphasis on geospatial aspects while Data Science also examines other types of data apart from locations, such as online transaction records.

On the other hand, GIS, especially when we use it to refer to Geographic Information Systems, emphasises a lot on system engineering, namely developing map-based computer systems, databases, and spatial algorithms. This system engineering aspect is less emphasised in Data Science.

Tell us more about the prevalence of GIS and examples of how big businesses are using it.

GIS has been widely used by governmental agencies, private companies, and non-profit organisations. Governmental agencies, such as the US Census and US Geological Survey are using GIS to manage population distribution, new energy (e.g., solar and wind energy), natural resources (e.g., water and forest), and transportation infrastructures. Private companies, such as Google, Apple, and Microsoft, develop their own map products for users (e.g., Apple Maps and Bing Maps); United Parcel Service (UPS) are using GIS to identify the best routes for their delivery trucks- which is important for reducing the cost of gas and tires; Disney uses GIS to simulate virtual cities in the movie Zootopia.

What do you think are the challenges bearing on the future of GIS?

Like many other computer-based systems, GIS evolves with the latest computer technologies. Thus, future challenges may include how we design geographic information systems that can integrate the newly invented computer algorithms and in a way that it can handle big volumes of geospatial data relatively easily. (Some systems already exist but they are not easy to use). The challenges also include how we can improve GIS education to help GIS users to develop creative solutions for various domain problems.

How can these issues be tackled?

These issues need to be tackled with the collaboration of academia, industry, and government agencies. We need universities for inventing new analysis methods and GIS components, and for educating new generations of the workforce and future leaders. We need the industry to connect the inventions from universities to real-world problems and to develop novel GIS solutions. We need government agencies to provide policies and resource support for the development and applications of GIS.

With regulations such as Personal Data Protection and General Data Protection in place, how can we strike a good balance between keeping an eye on these privacy concerns while utilising GIS?

This is a very good question, and a research topic in GIScience, called geoprivacy, aims to answer this question. The general idea is to design computer algorithms to randomise the locations of individuals while preserving the overall pattern of the data. With those geoprivacy algorithms, we will be able to use the location data from people for purposes that benefit the whole society such as designing better transportation infrastructures, while ensuring that each individual data record does not reveal personal information.

How will GIS impact future job markets? What do you think are the emerging sectors and potential career opportunities?

According to P&S Intelligence[1-2], the global market of GIS is expected to grow at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 10.2% during 2018-2023 to reach $17.5 billion by 2023. There are many GIS career opportunities in both developing and applying GIS. In terms of developing GIS, software companies, such as Esri, Google, and Apple, are looking for GIS experts who can integrate GIS with the latest computational technologies. In terms of GIS applications, organisations in various domains, such as natural resource management, transportation, public health, disaster mitigation, urban planning, and others are looking for people who have GIS expertise to help solve domain problems. There are also demands for GIS specialists to produce geospatial data such as high-resolution remote sensing images. We may see more GIS career opportunities that are related to building smart cities and developing high-definition (HD) maps for autonomous vehicles in the coming years.


Two references:

Assistant Professor Yingjie Hu
Department of Geography, University at Buffalo

Learn more about GIS at the upcoming UB Open Day on 1 June by registering here. Find out more about the GIS programme here.

Posted online, 09 May 2019