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Off the Map
The Limitless Uses of Geographic Information Systems

March 2012

Tracking tree health. Analyzing crime data. Managing social services resources. These very unique and seemingly unrelated activities do share a common denominator – the implementation of a Geographic Information System – or GIS for short. By definition, a GIS resembles other information systems built to receive and analyze data. Where it differs is its use of geographic references to present the data in the form of maps, charts, globes and reports for geographically centered decision-making.

The use of the spatio-temporal or space and time location is the key index variable associated with the data analysis. Using the Global Positioning System (GPS), scientists, engineers or field technicians determine the accurate location of a particular subject and use that data to find relationships in previously unrelated information. One of the first recorded uses of geographically related analysis is from Dr. John Snow, a 19th-century physician in England. During an outbreak of cholera in the 1850s, Snow mapped the cholera cases and showed the relationship between infected families and a particular pump that supplied water within the town. Snow’s discovery led to a decision to disconnect the pump and his methodology would lay the groundwork for the development of the science of epidemiology.

Mackenzie Commercial Real Estate Properties uses sophisticated GIS-based research to help determine where to locate commercial ventures.

As science and technology evolved, so did the foundation for what we call GIS today. The Canadian government created the first operating systems during the 1960s. In the 1970s, Harvard’s research lab in spatial analysis and design was developing theories and distributing code that would become commercialized in the ’80s. The introduction of the Internet and rapid hardware and software development since the late ’90s has literally put GIS study and usage on the map.

“I have seen GIS technology expand from very expensive, hard to operate ‘behind locked doors’ systems in large government operations to affordable, anywhere, anytime on any device information systems,” says Tim Palmer, Group Leader (GIS) for Chesapeake Environmental Management, Inc. in Bel Air. “The biggest change has been the incorporation of application development and database management into the spatial world. The power with terabytes of spatially enabled information in your hands to make better, more informed, decisions is incredible. This melding of technologies has allowed businesses to become more streamlined and provide a higher level of services to their clients.”

There are no restrictions when it comes to the type of business or agency that can benefit from the integration and application of GIS into executive-level strategy and decision-making.

Lutherville-based Mackenzie Commercial Real Estate Properties uses GIS to develop marketing strategies for their real estate clients. Geographically presented demographics coupled with lifestyle data, such as brand preferences, spending patterns and entertainment frequency, can determine where a shopping center should be built and what kind of tenants would succeed in that location.

Flathead Electric Cooperative in rural Montana became concerned over the threat of service interruption for its customers from downed lines and widespread power outages after bark beetles killed 3.7 million acres of trees across the Midwest. Hoping to mitigate the situation, the Cooperative took previously collected and recorded tree health data and combined it with geo-coding software for their GIS to create a solution that allows them to stay ahead of potentially dangerous and life-threatening convergence of events.

Another scenario using GIS is in law enforcement. Multiple police actions could overlap in a dense area resulting in the failure of all involved operations as well as the risk of fatalities from friendly fire or exposure. The Oregon Department of Justice used a GIS to coordinate multi-agency undercover activity that can be referenced without exposing the confidentially of those involved and protecting those in action in the same vicinity. This “de-conflicting” uses geo-code information that collaborating agencies can easily retrieve via a secure website.

Locally, Palmer and his team at Chesapeake Environmental Management have used GIS technologies for work with the Harford County Department of Public Works and the City of Aberdeen. “I oversaw a project [for DPW] to inventory and collect location information for all of its above ground and underground storage tanks that hold fuel and oil. We utilized GPS to locate the tanks for the GIS mapping. We also took digital pictures of each tank and recorded general statistics, including size, date of installation and fuel type. We compiled an Internet-based GIS viewer that allowed Harford County to search and review the tanks. When the user clicks on a specific tank on the map, a pop-up window will show the picture and general information about that tank. The user will also able to open documents about the tank through a document viewer that includes inspection reports and permits.”

A similar project in Aberdeen had Palmer doing field collection of the City’s sanitary sewer and manhole lines. “We utilized GPS to locate and track the progress of the task,” says Palmer. “Additional field data was collected and added to the GIS so that the client could gain more insight into their sanitary network. Data such as the type of piping, size of manhole, slope and diameter of the pipe were added to the GIS layers and were viewable with a click of the mouse button.”

The Chesapeake Science and Security Corridor contributed to a large-scale GIS project called MD iMap, a collaborative and multi-agency effort to provide a single point of access to all GIS related information, products and services for the State of Maryland. CSSC is a member of the technical committee that is responsible for the development of the MD iMap content, policies and procedures and makes recommendations regarding the MD iMap system infrastructure or data sets to the Executive Committee.

Information available on MD iMap includes agriculture, flood risks, emergency management, hiking and biking trails, broadband distribution and much more. Using the online interactive GrowthPrint component, anyone can access and view the multiple GIS layers that represent the cumulative State programs, as well as the individual layers that make up the separate programs. Through a GIS overlay process, GrowthPrint gives a geographic representation of where the efforts are currently underway to target community infill, revitalization and redevelopment efforts, and where there are opportunities for future targeting.

With the advent of the iPad and smart phone, GIS is not only more accessible and portable but more affordable, making its potential impact and application limitless to those companies that can envision its uses. Palmer states that businesses and agencies using GIS will see huge returns on their investments. By improving their understanding of their customers, clients and environment, they can offer products and services that are more appropriate, accurately allocate and manage resources, and make enhanced decisions that will provide better service and ultimately improve the bottom line.

For more information, visit MD iMap at