Geographic Information Systems (GIS) may be able to trace its ancestral roots to the first cartographers, but the technology has evolved into a highly efficient tool that allows users to plot geographic locations and store information in an easily accessible database.

Groundbreaking Accesibility
One of the most important functions of GIS is enabling the use of web and mobile-based mapping applications to provide information necessary to complete high-level analyses. GIS allows the information to be updated and viewed simultaneously so that users can make informed decisions based on up-to-the-minute information.

Previously, maps were created and emailed to clients who would make changes and send the maps back to be updated. With web-based mapping, that lag time has evaporated. Anyone with a smartphone or tablet can not only access the information even as it’s being updated, but they can also make edits in the field. Web-based mapping makes the client’s and project manager’s lives easier because the same information is available to everyone and efforts aren’t unnecessarily duplicated.

Low Cost and High Convenience
For a client, an Internet browser is the only requirement for retrieving the information—specialized software, hardware or special training is not necessary to use GIS. In addition, the information is more simplified and intuitive, thereby lowering training costs by eliminating application purchases or updates and specific program training.

Most clients don’t request web- or mobile-based mapping because they assume the technology is only available on GIS projects. But the biggest advantage of the technology is the centralization of large quantities of data that can be managed by project team members simultaneously. Once a client realizes the ease of accessing data in real-time, he will never want to be without it.

Implementation planning is integral to the success of any project that requires a significant amount of data management. For an organization to successfully implement a web-based system, those setting up the system must conduct the necessary upfront implementation planning and not just jump into developing a web application. Evident advantages aside, web- and mobile-based mapping does have disadvantages, such as requiring high-speed Internet or wireless coverage to work. In the not-too-distant future, wireless coverage will no longer be an issue because disconnected editing will allow data to be viewed and edited offline; changes will then be automatically uploaded when wireless becomes available. Also, the perception still exists that the technology is expensive to set-up, but technological innovations like cloud-based GIS have significantly reduced initial setup costs. Finally, because the information is delivered in a simplified format, the mapping is not as robust as a traditional GIS desktop application, which would serve as the primary data management tool.

Smooth Integration and Real-Life Practicality
Smoothly integrating many types of information is what makes GIS an important tool in the planning phases of an engineering project. While CAD remains a superior program for design, GIS offers a more efficient way of storing and tracking information needed to plan and design; GIS also excels in performing spatial analysis. GIS and CAD do overlap in some instances, though, because some projects, such as environmental, aerial photos or elevation data, require sharing data between CAD and GIS. Web services allow GIS data, such as aerials or elevation information, to be accessed directly in the CAD environment, eliminating the need for GIS data conversion. 

One GIS function is line-of-sight analysis, which uses elevation data to demonstrate where structures, such as a proposed cell tower, are visible from one location to another. GIS offers a high-quality, reliable alternative to traditional methods of capturing location-based information. Tried-and-true methods like gathering field data and collecting pertinent maps still work, but GIS provides access to layers of environmental and civil data that can be used to create an accurate geographic model.

Are you selecting a site for a new hospital or medical center that needs to serve a designated population within a specific geographic distance? At the stroke of a key, GIS can calculate estimated drive-times analyses to offer multiple scenarios with accurate, objective results. The technology can generate flood depth maps with a complete analysis of affected homes at various depths or analyze a particular structure’s visibility from a park or along a scenic highway. GIS helps people visualize and interpret data to demonstrate relationships, trends and patterns.

Some companies are developing specific web-based mapping applications for employees to use to easily and quickly access a wealth of geographic information to make better decisions for a client’s project. The applications save time and offer an improved method for providing engineers and surveyors with more accurate data. Developing specific web applications offers users the added benefit of easily centralizing the most accessed data, such as wetlands, parcels, quad maps and NGS control points, as well as ancillary information that accompanies the data. The applications can be connected with other tracking systems that require the information, centralizing critical project data for everyone involved.

The roots of GIS can be traced to something as simple as a map, but the technology is far from simple. GIS touches nearly everything we encounter on a daily basis: roads, computers, traffic signals, power lines, communication towers—you name it. Remember that the next time you reach for your smartphone to locate a nearby restaurant, request driving directions or take a photo that automatically provides your location. GIS is the technology that provides the information by drawing on previously stored geographic information located in a database, saving you the trouble of remembering how to fold that tricky map.