GIS: More than Just a Pretty Map

Posted by on Feb 4, 2014

In light of the recent major snow and ice incident in the South, I began thinking about some of the benefits of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) that people may not normally consider. During this storm, GIS capabilities were more than likely used in some capacity to assess the evolving conditions and assist in recovery efforts.

GIS involves computer software that maps and analyzes geographical data. Sure, you get a nice-looking map, but there’s so much more to it than that.

Here are 5 priceless benefits, the first of which was likely to be incredibly helpful to the Birmingham area recently.

  1. Emergency Response – GIS can be used when it comes to routing and identifying problem areas within those routes. This would be helpful in situations when there are problems due to tornadoes, hurricanes and snow/ice storms. The data allows users to identify where blocked roads are and reroute emergency crews so responders can get to where they need to go in the most efficient way. With GIS, it’s also possible to identify where the hazards are, such as downed trees, collisions or traffic signals that are out. The list goes on and on about how we can improve emergency response with GIS. Rather than giving individual updates about this road or that intersection, it allows us to present a broader picture of the situation, which in turn allows municipalities to be proactive in recovery rather than reactive in picking up the pieces and determining what to do next. Additionally, GIS can provide interactive web maps that allow the public to input information related to eye witness accounts with common handheld smart devices. This can provide more information to emergency management teams, which can then be disseminated back to the public with up-to-date, real-time situational map information.
  2. Asset Management – This involves knowing what you have and where it’s located. For example, if a water main breaks you know exactly where it is, which allows you to get the water cut off, resolve the problem and have the water restored in a timely and efficient manner. Having an inventory of these assets which is current and available in the field is huge. GIS helps in collecting and maintaining this information. Having a permanent record of where pipes, manholes, parks and other recreation facilities are located is much better than several paper maps or drawings that probably haven’t been updated recently.
  3. Efficient Information Retrieval – This benefit refers to how easy it is to store and access your information. In times past, if somebody needed information, they probably had to go to a storage room or filing cabinets to find where documents were located. GIS gives us the ability to bring all kinds of documents — utility information, easements, deed history, tax records and other property information — to a central and easily accessible location.
  4. Retained History – Traditional document storage on paper is not always permanent. Paper deteriorates and is destructible from fire, water damage, etc. Once those historical paper documents are gone or ruined, there’s no replacement for them. With GIS document management, you can permanently retain all of your historical information on your assets.
  5. Problem Solved – The more information you have in a given situation, the easier it is to make the proper decisions to solve problems. You may have a paving plan for repaving streets over a 10-year period. But if you’re getting constant complaints for streets that aren’t planned to be repaved for three more years, you may need to modify. GIS can help make these modifications to plans and identify where the more serious problems are located so that they can be addressed more quickly.

Sain Associates, Inc., is headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, with offices in Pulaski, Tennessee and Mandeville, Louisiana. Sain is a site engineering, traffic/transportation engineering and planning and land surveying firm with experience in more than thirty states.

1 Comment

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