What Is GIS

By Saraflora Sakwa Chachalia

What is GIS? This is probably the most asked question posed to those in the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) field and is probably the hardest to answer. Esri has defined GIS as a computer-based tool for mapping and analyzing things that exist and events that happen on earth. GIS technology integrates common database operations such as query and statistical analysis with the unique visualization and geographic analysis benefits offered by maps.

The history of GIS and spatial analysis dates back to Dr. John Snow who in 1854 helped identify the source of a cholera outbreak in London. Results of the study revealed that contaminated water from one of the major pumps was the main source of the cholera outbreak. The map that Dr. John Snow came up with was the first documented case that linked occurrences such as disease to geographic locations.

The first GIS was created by first GIS was created by Dr. Roger Tomlinson and then introduced in the early 1960s in Canada. During its inception, this system was mainly meant for collecting, storing and then analyzing the capability & potential which the land in the rural areas had.

How GIS works

GIS links the geographic information of where things are with the descriptive information of what the things are. GIS combines the use of spatial data which refers to locations on earth with attribute data which is additional information about the spatial data. The partnership of spatial and attribute data types enables GIS to be an effective problem solving tool through spatial analysis.

GIS works by enabling users to visualize, question, analyze, and interpret data to understand relationships, patterns, and trends. The answers provided by GIS software in the form of a digital map are easy to use because they can be quickly understood and easily shared.

A simple five-step process allows the application of GIS to any business problem. It involves;

1. Ask - What is the problem you are trying to solve or analyze, and where is it located? Framing the question will help you decide what to analyze and how to present the results to your audience.

2. Acquire - Next you need to find the data needed to complete your project. The type of data and the geographic scope of your project will help direct your methods of collecting data and conducting the analysis.

3. Examine - You will only know for certain that your data is appropriate for your study after thoroughly examining it. This includes how the data is organized, how accurate it is, and where the data came from.

4. Analyze - Geographic analysis is the core strength of GIS. Depending on your project, there are many different analysis methods to choose from. GIS modeling tools make it relatively easy to make these changes and create new output.

5. Act - The results of your analysis can be shared through reports, maps, tables, and charts and delivered in printed format or digitally over a network or on the web. You need to decide on the best means for presenting your analysis, and GIS makes it easy to tailor the results for different audiences.

Users of GIS

Like any other information system, GIS is a tool also used to help make informed choices supported by data which is of great benefit to organizations both economically and strategically. GIS supports decision making by gathering place-based information and organizing it on a digital map.

The various GIS stakeholders include users from a diverse range of professions. These include educators, engineers, public and private sector workers as well as planners and policy makers. Other users of GIS include environmentalists, health practitioners and economists. All these roles use the map knowledge and patterns revealed by GIS software, to enhance the allocation of resources effectively.

Benefits of GIS

Cost Savings from Greater Efficiency - GIS is widely used to optimize maintenance schedules and daily fleet movements. Typical implementations can result in a savings of 10 to 30 percent in operational expenses through reduction in fuel use and staff time, improved customer service, and more efficient scheduling.

Better Decision Making - GIS is the go-to technology for making better decisions about location. Common examples include real estate site selection, route/corridor selection, evacuation planning, conservation, natural resource extraction, etc. Making correct decisions about location is critical to the success of an organization.

Improved Communication - GIS-based maps and visualizations greatly assist in understanding situations and in storytelling. They are a type of language that improves Fig 3: Distribution of electricity generating stations across Kenya (Source: KenGen) communication between different teams, departments, disciplines, professional fields, organizations, and the public.

Better Record Keeping -Many organizations have a primary responsibility of maintaining authoritative records about the status and change of geography. GIS provides a strong framework for managing these types of records with full transaction support and reporting tools.

Kenya Electricity Generating Company Limited, KenGen is the leading electric power generation company in Kenya and produces about 80 percent of electricity consumed in the country. The company utilizes various sources to generate electricity ranging from hydro, geothermal, thermal and wind. The Olkaria II Power Station is the largest Geothermal Power Station in Africa and generates over 70MW and is owned and operated by KenGen.

How KenGen uses GIS

The control tower for GIS technology in KenGen is the Resource Development Department. This department supports other departments with GIS related information. Some of these include the Geology, Geochemistry, Environmental and Hydrology departments. The information provided helps to inform stakeholders, including geothermal developers, government regulators and proponents, utility companies, land-use planners, local communities, and other parties interested in the most favorable areas for geothermal development.

KenGen uses GIS in mapping of assets such as wind turbines, steam pipes, geothermal wells and over 25 power plants across Kenya. They also use it to carry out topographic analysis of our different areas of interest.

KenGen has also employed GIS technology widely for identification of prospective Geothermal Field areas by employing various suitability analysis methods.