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29 Jan

What Is GIS Data, and How Is It Used?


Geographical information systems (GIS) are the backbone for geographical science and all its related fields. Modern geography uses sophisticated, highly specialized technology to gather, analyze and report on data about positions on Earth's surface.1

GIS data can provide important information related to location, such as the longitude, latitude, address or ZIP code of a specific location. It also can provide details about the people who live in a particular area including population size, education and income levels, as well as environmental features of the landscape.1 Having access to so much information about different locations allows GIS scientists to compare locations and draw conclusions based on the relationship between data at different locations.

At its most basic level, GIS data is perfect for creating maps. Cartographic data in map form displays the location of natural features such as roads, rivers, forests and valleys, or manmade features like farms or towns. This information can be gathered from photographs, satellites and other sources.1

But the human side of things is equally important. GIS technology often captures information about the people who live or work in a particular area. Some of this is basic demographic information (age, income, ethnicity), but GIS technology can also gather and store information on purchases, lifestyle, internet usage and more.1

Five Uses for GIS Data in Everyday Life

Geography is an interdisciplinary field combining elements of the social sciences with hard science. As the system and tools powering geography, it should come as no surprise that GIS has real-world applications far beyond mere scientific curiosity, but some of the applications of GIS data might surprise you. Here are just a few specific uses:2

  1. Urban Planning: How should a city expand? What do its residents need? Is the surrounding area able to support additional growth? GIS data can help both with the human side of urban expansion and understanding the geographical area.
  2. Agriculture: GIS can analyze soil data to understand what crops would grow best in an area or help develop more efficient farming methods. The end result? Increased food production and better environmental practices.
  3. Navigation: Do you use map applications on your phone to get around? These navigation tools rely on GIS data to keep their maps updated and to share information that helps the public.
  4. Telecommunications: Telecom companies use geographic data to plan and design their networks and keep on top of customer needs and maintenance planning.
  5. Transportation: GIS can help answer many different questions related to transportation, from identifying dangerous intersections and improving road optimization to choosing the right location for new road or rail routes.

Other fields where GIS data is used include:3

  • Education
  • Health
  • Real Estate
  • Public Safety
  • Retail
  • Insurance
  • Manufacturing

What Are the Types of GIS Data?

Another name for GIS data is geospatial data, referring to the location-based nature of GIS — that GIS data is data with a geographic component to it.4 (While some people argue that there are technically differences between GIS data and geospatial data, the two terms are often used interchangeably.)

Geospatial data comes in several different forms, depending on what is being measured and how that data will be used:5

  • Numerical data: Statistical data, most commonly demographic information from the U.S. Census Bureau. This information is typically stored as numbers in a chart, often in spreadsheet form.
  • Vector data: Spatial data with specific coordinates assigned to it. Often, numerical data is connected with vectors to form a layer of vector data on a map. Vector data is abstract and can be difficult to understand or visualize; it conveys data drawn as points or lines, but it doesn't by itself provide context for that data.6
  • Raster data: Data stored as an image, such as a painted map, aerial photography or satellite imagery.6

Interactive maps can be created using GIS data and multiple layers. For example, you might start with a photograph or satellite image of a city as your base raster layer, and then overlay a vector layer that communicates numerical data in a form that can be spatially and visually understood.

Learn to utilize GIS technology to solve real-world problems in countless fields with a degree from Kent State University’s online Master of Geographic Information Science (GISc). Many GIS specialist positions require a master's degree, and Kent State's program will provide not just the qualifications to advance your career, but also the expertise to design, develop and use GIS technology. If you want to learn to master this technology faster, without the time investment of a full degree, you can also choose from three postbaccalaureate certificates in Geographic Information Science.

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