Traditional printed maps are a great visual way to describe places, but they have some problems. Where am I on the map? Where are the interesting things? Why can’t I see roads built since the map was printed? Geographic Information Systems (GIS) allow us to bring the map into the modern age, solving these problems and adding new functionality that was simply not possible without computers. GIS maps cater for the increasingly complex data we gather about our environments.
No longer simply a diagram of a coastline, or a list of places, or a chart of rock-types, GIS mapping can combine all available data about a given area and deliver it in new and dynamic ways. Consider search, ever scoured a printed map looking for that elusive small town? Well GIS maps let you type place names into a search box and give you the exact location immediately. Okay how do I get there? Well with GIS a route can be calculated and shown to you in a second. Want to avoid traffic?
Here’s a variation. How about a detour to that monument 20 miles east? No problem, a GIS map will calculate all this for you. But GIS maps are not just handy applications for tourists. The power offered by these tools is perhaps most useful in the world of science. The fields of science gather data about our world in very different ways, but GIS offers unique opportunities to combine all this in one.
New contexts are created when we can mix archaeology with topology, history with urban planning, financial data with crime records and so on. The most exciting thing about GIS maps is the way they can change the world we thought we knew. We are able to learn about our own neighborhood, or places the other side of the world. Greater understanding is made when we bring together different levels of information, and when given the power to access this data we can make new discoveries of global importance.