GIS: Not Just for Utility Poles or Gas Lines Anymore

Extensive and unusual data is available to GIS practitioners, often at little or no cost.

The in-depth training of an online GIS degree lays the framework understanding of how geospatial information systems can be used and how to apply big data findings to industries from health care to disease prevention.

GIS (geographic information systems) has become a tremendously popular technology because of its ability to use location and visualization to integrate many otherwise incompatible types of information. Whether in disaster relief, marketing, strategic planning, environmental impact, or many other areas, GIS lets officials, managers, and executives gain insights that would never before have been possible.

And yet, GIS is often associated by lay persons with a relatively small subset of applications: utility companies tracking electrical poles, for example, or a city providing clearance for digging by construction companies that want to avoid water or gas mains. It’s a shame, because there are many more potential uses for GIS, limited only by the available data, as anyone with a GIS degree could tell you.

That’s why the announcement of the Spatial Data Repository of health and demographic data from BlueSource can be helpful. It reminds everyone, tyro and pro alike, of how much variety there can be in uses, largely because of the availability of third-party data. GIS users get more capabilities at a much lower cost than trying to accumulate such data themselves.

The free data comes from a variety of sources, including the MEASURE Demographic and Health Surveys, or DHS, and U.S. Census Bureau population estimates and projections. Available for dozens of countries, it focuses on largely emerging areas and not more economically established regions like the U.S., Europe, Russia, or China. Here are some of the common data types that are available on a “national or subnational” basis:

  • characteristics of households
  • fertility
  • family planning
  • other proximate determinates of fertility
  • fertility preferences
  • early childhood mortality
  • maternal and child health
  • maternal and child nutrition
  • HIV/AIDS
  • malaria

Each of these data types can break down into further subtypes. For example, click on malaria and you get such items as household possession and use of mosquito nets, prevalence and prompt treatment of children with fever, home availability of antimalarial drugs, and type and timing of antimalarial drugs taken by children with fever. Fertility would include birth order, current fertility, fertility trends, children born and living, teenage pregnancy and motherhood by background characteristics, and other factors.

Will most GIS professionals use such information? Probably not. Even those in health care or public health might not have need for such international characteristics. But the point is that extensive and unusual data is available to GIS practitioners, often at little or no cost. Before embarking on a GIS project, do some research and see what is available. Consider for a moment even things that you might automatically dismiss; innovation happens when two previously unconnected ideas are put together. You never can tell when a slight twist in what you look at opens new possibilities for your organization.

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