What Is Geographic Information System (GIS) and How Is It Used?

Female geologist with colleague studying graphical display of oil and gas bearing rock on screens
  Monty Rakuse/Getty Images 

A geographic information system integrates data, hardware, software, and GPS to assist in the analysis and display of geographically referenced information. It helps us understand relationships, trends, and patterns.

A GIS is often a computer system, but the term is also used generally to refer to any scientific effort to integrate data that helps researchers visualize, analyze and explore geographical information. For example, GIS helps researchers measure the speed of glacier melt in Greenland and Antarctica, and it can assist in the analysis of small-scale and localized data such as development trends or watershed analysis as well. GIS is frequently used to create maps that illustrate hidden data. 

GIS in the Everyday World

The field of GIS has advanced rapidly with the availability of computer power, the development of software, and the proliferation of inexpensive GPS devices. It is commonly used by governments, scientists, and individuals. Think about the last time you checked a map, either on the internet, on your phone, or in an old-fashioned handheld atlas. You probably saw many types of information, from topographical to transportation infrastructures and possible locations of prominent businesses and sites. You can thank GIS for putting all this information together. 

GIS information appears all over the internet. It tells you how many restaurants are located in a certain geographic area. It is responsible for those evacuation signs along roadways that are common in areas prone to bad weather. GIS has determined the quickest route to safety.