Geography Information System

Geographic Information System (GIS), computer system that records, stores, and analyzes information about the features that make up the earth's surface. A GIS can generate two- or three-dimensional images of an area, showing such natural features as hills and rivers with artificial features such as roads and power lines. Scientists use GIS images as models, making precise measurements, gathering data, and testing ideas with the help of the computer.

Many GIS databases consist of sets of information called layers. Each layer represents a particular type of geographic data. For example, one layer may include information on the streets in an area. Another layer may contain information on the soil in that area, while another records elevation. The GIS can combine these layers into one image, showing how the streets, soil, and elevation relate to one another. Engineers might use this image to determine whether a particular part of a street is more likely to crumble. A GIS database can include as many as 100 layers.

A GIS is designed to accept geographic data from a variety of sources, including maps, satellite photographs, and printed text and statistics. GIS sensors can scan some of this data directly—for example, a computer operator may feed a map or photograph into the scanner, and the computer “reads” the information it contains. The GIS converts all geographical data into a digital code, which it arranges in its database. Operators program the GIS to process the information and produce the images or information they need.

The applications of a GIS are vast and continue to grow. By using a GIS, scientists can research changes in the environment; engineers can design road systems; electrical companies can manage their complex networks of power lines; governments can track the uses of land; and fire and police departments can plan emergency routes. Many private businesses have begun to use a GIS to plan and improve their services.

The Canadian government built the first GIS, the Canada Geographic Information System, during the 1960s to analyze data collected by the Canada Land Inventory. Other governments and university laboratories soon built similar systems. However, GIS systems were not widely used until the late 1970s, when technological improvements and lower costs made computers widely available. GIS sales boomed during the 1980s, as governments and businesses found more uses for the systems. A number of companies began producing new GIS software to program computer systems to increase their functions. By the early 1990s, about 100,000 GIS systems were in operation.

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