Geographic Information System (GIS): Using Maps & Locations to Make Decisions

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  • 0:05 What Is GIS?
  • 2:15 How Does GIS Work?
  • 4:57 Spatial Data
  • 6:16 Spatial Analysis
  • 7:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Paul Zandbergen

Paul is a GIS professor at Vancouver Island U, has a PhD from U of British Columbia, and has taught stats and programming for 15 years.

A Geographic Information System uses smart maps to describe geographical relationships. Learn how organizations use spatial analysis to improve decision making.

What Is GIS?

Many decisions made by organizations are related to physical locations. For example, a supermarket has a physical location and many of its customers will likely live nearby. Knowing the location of the store and its customers is critical to making decisions. For example, a store manager may want to know how many of the nearby residents are buying their groceries at competitors a few blocks away. When distributing flyers to residents, which neighborhoods should be targeted? When considering opening a new store, what would be the best location?

GIS is known as smart maps because of all the information they can show.
Smart Maps Image

In order to analyze these physical locations, you need a specialized information system. A Geographic Information System, or GIS, is a computer-based system to collect, organize, manage, analyze and display the geographical locations and the descriptions of objects of interest. In the case of the supermarket, you are interested in the location of the supermarket and its competitors as well as the neighborhoods where the customers live.

You've probably used GIS without referring to it by this name. For example, maybe you visited a different city and you used a website to find the restaurants within walking distance of your hotel. You typed in the address of your hotel and then searched for 'restaurants.' Up came a map with the locations of restaurants, and you were able to click on each one to see the type of restaurant and their reviews. Sounds familiar? How do you think that map was created? You got it - using GIS.

The website you used has access to a database with all the streets and landmarks. When you enter the address of your hotel, it searches for this address in the database and reports the location as a pin on a map. This is known as 'geocoding,' or converting addresses to geographic locations. When you search for nearby restaurants, it pulls up the restaurants from the database that fall within the same general area. Those locations are also reported on the map and linked to other websites, which provide descriptive information, such as customer reviews.

How Does GIS Work?

You can think of GIS as 'smart maps.' For example, let's say you are the manager of a supermarket and you want to examine your competition to come up with an advertising campaign in the local media. First, you're going to map all the supermarkets in the city. In GIS, these locations are called features.

Then you're going to add descriptions to those locations. You can label each supermarket by the chain that it belongs to, so you can analyze your competition. You may also want to add something about its size and whether it has a pharmacy department. This descriptive information about each feature is called attributes.

The combination of features and attributes is called a map layer. So your first map layer consists of supermarkets and their descriptions. The second layer could be the neighborhoods in the city. You can describe the neighborhoods in terms of demographic information, such as the number of families, the average family income and the number of children under 10 years old. This information is useful to describe your potential customers. Your third layer could consist of the roads within the city. Whether customers drive, walk or bike, they will need to use the roads to get to your store.

Layers such as these can be overlapped to analyze information.
Map Layers Examples

Now that you have your three map layers organized, what is so smart about them? In GIS, you can overlay these maps and ask questions about their geographic relationships. For example, you may be interested in knowing how many people of a certain income with young children live within a five-kilometer drive from your store. GIS allows you to compare the maps of supermarkets, neighborhoods and roads to answer this type of question. In this case, the answer is not only a number, but also a map of where these families live.

Going one step further, you can also examine how many of those families also live within a five-kilometer drive from a competing store. That could be really useful information to determine which customers you are really competing over.

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