Geographic Information System (GIS)
A geographic information system (GIS) is a compilation of hardware, software, and data that enables users to
- Produce high-quality maps at a variety of scales
- Store and maintain a large quantity of geographically referenced information
- Visualize and simplify complex data
- Perform complex analyses on data
- Easily make changes to data
GIS helps streamline the process of analyzing a variety of data types. Data can be in the form of reports, maps, tables, or historical records. These documents can be located in a variety of places and in many formats. A GIS is able to integrate all of these resources for display and analysis and share this information with many users for all types of projects.
Although GIS technology is relatively mainstream within coastal resource management, the integration of social science data into these maps or spatial analyses is an emerging trend within the natural resource management community. GIS can be useful for documenting human use patterns, identifying culturally sensitive areas, prioritizing regions for additional public access, or highlighting demographic trends within a community.
GIS also provides a mechanism to encourage stakeholder participation for site selection and impact analysis. Within a public meeting, for example, users may be permitted to view and interact with the data as management issues are discussed. GIS functionality may also be customized in a decision support tool that allows stakeholders to weigh the importance of certain issues or data sets and select regions based on assigned criteria. Often, even groups with disparate views will identify regions of overlap among the selected areas, potentially providing common ground and making the issue less polarized.
GIS technology presents managers with the ability to capture stakeholder input for a specific region and integrate that information with existing natural science data for a more comprehensive analysis. GIS provides a powerful mechanism to highlight and communicate concerns regarding environmental threats or proposed management measures from the perspective of both the local community and the scientific or management community.
In order to be viewed by and analyzed within a GIS, the information must be geographically referenced, i.e., associated with a specific point location (latitude/longitude), line (road, river), or region (zip code, town, county). Often raw social science data must be manipulated to provide this geographic reference. For example, data gathered from a questionnaire can be linked to existing spatial data, such as census tracts or blocks, counties, or zip codes (see map).
GIS can be used to display and analyze a variety of spatially referenced data types. Examples of data than can be used within a GIS to enhance social science information include:
- Aerial photography
- Satellite imagery
- Global Positioning System (GPS) data
- Bathymetric and topographic data
- Shoreline change data (LIDAR)
- Habitat data
- Fish and wildlife data
- Landscape features
The ability to review such a broad range of information about a specific location can lead to improved decision-making. In particular, the combination of natural and social science data may highlight conflicting uses and identify relationships between human use patterns and observed impacts.
Helps users visualize complex or inaccessible data
May indicate links between people or between people and the environment that may not otherwise have been identified
Is effective for outreach and education
May help visualize "what if" scenarios
Does not require advanced technical expertise to conduct basic mapping functions
Cost of data and software packages may be prohibitive
Cost of experts, such as GIS specialists or programmers, may be prohibitive
Collection of data may require specialized equipment or software
Results are limited to the amount and quality of available data
Data may be hard to access because of confidentiality or proprietary issues
Basic manipulation and simple map display within a GIS can be performed with minimal experience; however, access to training allows users to conduct more complex analyses. Many natural resource areas already have access to the required software and personnel. Still, depending on the needs of the program and the resources available, it may be helpful to seek additional expertise through a partnership agreement or external contract.
Coastal Geospatial Information: Examples of Internet Resources
Links to coast-related spatial data, training resources, and metadata information from a variety of sources.
Environmental Systems Research Institute, Inc. (ESRI)
One of the leading developers of GIS software, ESRI's Web site provides examples of how GIS is used and background information for all levels of users
What Is GIS?
Basic GIS information from GIS.com, an information source created by ESRI.
Social Sciences: Interest in GIS Grows
The role of GIS in social science. By M. F Goodchild,. University of California, Santa Barbara.
Remote Sensing for Coastal Management
Examples of how GIS is used with other software programs and remote sensing techniques. Developed by the NOAA Coastal Services Center.