The Benefits of GIS, By: Katherine E. Berry, MPS

December 5, 2019
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Geospatial intelligence has become a global phenomenon that is rapidly changing the way the world views itself, the people residing on it, and the ever-changing landscapes of nature and man. What is it, and why has it dramatically changed so much in just a few short years?

GIS, or geographical information systems, is a mapping system used to digitally map, graph, layout, and analyze visual data. These systems can be used to track voter data, census demographics, land use, tax parcels, changing natural landscapes, monitor health threats, watch wildfires or floods develop, and so much more. To some, the most amazing aspect of this system is its flexibility in almost any field, depending on the creativity of the user.

But how can GIS benefit you? Since Utilis North America’s headquarters is located in San Diego, CA, let’s start with a fire map example from the California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection:


Fire maps are important on three main levels: the decision maker level, the rescue worker level, and the citizen level.

Decision makers are those who oversee an event and are tasked with making decisions. Decision makers are the ones who call the shots, so they need to be as prepared as possible. Seeing where fires are currently spreading, the speed of the fire’s growth, understanding wind direction, change, speed, and the effects on fire behavior, working jointly across agencies to ensure rapid response or that the endangered area is prepared with supplies in the emergency shelters; these are all part of the song and dance that goes along with being an emergency-ready decision maker. Knowing who to contact and when is half the battle.

Rescue workers are exactly what they sound like: they are in the streets, digging through debris to save lives, handing out water and food to those displaced by the evacuation orders. This group can include firefighters, medical personnel, volunteers at the Red Cross or similar organizations, etc. When in the field, rescue workers need to know where to go and they don’t have time to make dozens of phone calls to the decision makers coordinating the efforts, to the other rescue teams to establish coverage, and they need to know how to get to target locations quickly. With mobile phone capabilities and texting services established from a GIS, rescue teams can cut through the middleman and look straight to the map on their phones to know where to head next.

Fire maps are important for civilians not just because it shows the location of the fire, but because proximity buffers can easily be added; so, if your home falls inside the buffer, you know you are a part of the evacuation order. But these maps will also have the closest hospitals, should you need it, the closest shelters, and other emergency locations so civilians can use the resource to keep themselves out of harm’s way.

The power of GIS is not that maps are made for these three types of users.  It is the advanced capabilities that the GIS system can analyze and provide users with complex information based on multiple layers, therefore reducing the work for the user.  For example, the decision maker doesn’t have to look at ten different map layers to analyze on their own.  The user can query the GIS system and ask it questions such as which areas are currently within 24 hours of the fire based on the wind speed and which of those buildings do not have the required 100m of defensible space.  These queries demonstrate the true power of GIS.


Spatial understanding of why some areas of the world are more susceptible to diseases compared to others is enlightening and currently a budding area of exploration. Why is this location different? Is there a physical barrier like a mountain? Is elevation playing a factor? Could the people here have evolved differently based off their geography?

A well-known issue in Africa for several years has been the devastating Ebola virus. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the incident rate of Ebola has dramatically increased since 2014. Below is a map from 2016. This map is showing three different sets of data: the number of cases in the last 7 days reported, number of cases in the last 21 days reported, and the blue shading is the overall confirmed cases from March 27, 2016. If I was a health professional and looking at this map, I would be curious as to why Mamou was relatively unaffected. Same with Mandiana bordering Mali, or any of the areas in white. What factors are present in these regions that make them have no cases reported? What is different? Is the reporting process harder in these states? These are things we could investigate further, after reviewing this map.  GIS helps us answer these types of complex questions by organizing and analyzing multiple layers of data.

Land Use

When it comes to less pressing situations, GIS is still known for being incredibly useful. Tax parcels, city planning, and other city services utilize land use maps in order to categorize businesses, building types, building materials, addresses, ownership names, and much more. It’s a mapped out, visual archive (and I’ve seen some pretty neat digitization of old town maps!)

Below is a land use map from Greater Philadelphia.

This land use map shows residential areas in yellow and orange (depending on the amount of people who live there), commercial areas in shades of red, industrial in purple, civic in blue, transportation in gray, etc. Usually these maps will have enriched data, which means you can click on one of the polygons (one of the shapes in the image) and a pop-up will tell you things like building materials, how many businesses are registered inside, census data containing demographics for the area, and much more. Enriched data can be found in ESRI’s Living Atlas, or you can create it from data your place of employment already possesses.

GIS can additionally be used to visualize data that is both large and visible to small and subsurface. Utilis utilizes the small and subsurface capabilities in our technology to find even the tiniest of leaks. Through a patented algorithm that analyzes subsurface plumes, Utilis can identify locations of background leaks (leaks that can go undetected for months or years) in a single photograph. Utilis focuses on these types of leaks because of the long-term damage and loss that can occur compared to a sudden and immediately noticeable main break can vastly differ in amount of loss. The longer term the leak, the greater the amount of loss no matter how much water is lost per minute.

GIS is changing the way we see the world every day, and it is only limited by the creativity of the GIS user. So, get out there, and get imaginative!

Cheers! –Kati B.

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