Explaining GIS

Explaining GIS

If you’re an online GIS degree-seeking student or GIS professional, you will no doubt encounter the following conversation with a friend or family member.

Friend: “What do you do?”

You: “I’m a GIS specialist.”

Friend: “Uh, what’s that?”

You: “I take spatial data and turn it into actionable material.”

Friend: “What’s that?”

You: “I make maps.”

If you’ve had this conversation before, you may have developed a canned answer to help you escape the next question, “what is that?” As Brooke Reams, a Geospatial Analyst at Esri, says: “Instead of giving a brief, understandable definition of GIS, I find myself painfully stuttering through what ends up becoming a boring, broken monologue to which I eventually receive a blank stare. This is the point at which I usually just awkwardly stop talking, as I end with ‘Yeah…it’s just kinda hard to explain.’”

Let’s face it, the rest of the world just will never appreciate ArcGIS as much as you. But, at a gathering, you still want to be able to talk about your profession. This has become such a frustrating issue for GIS specialists that there’s even a Pinterest page and a Facebook page dedicated to educating Regular Joes on GIS. GISLounge.com actually has a “GIS for Kids” page.

But, if you really want to educate your friends about what you do, the good news is there are some great tools out there to explain what the heck GIS is to your non-techy friends and family. For Geography Awareness Week 2007, Esri developed My Wonderful World for seven days of virtual tours, videos, and other activities during this very geographic week. It creates a virtual journey to Asia and shows how GIS technology opens doors of understanding to the vast. Your eager-to-learn-about-you friends can visit India to see how geography and climate have influenced history, visit the Himalayas to see how mountain climbers use GIS to plan routes, and visit China to see how mega cities will emerge in the 21st century.

Esri also helped National Geographic break down the importance of GIS in unprecedented fashion. In this 9:26-minute video, National Geographic uses geography, spatial location to analyze and visualize the incredible lands of Asia.

“Geography is more than just places on a map,” the video says. “It’s global connections and incredible creatures. It’s people and culture…and essential to understanding worlds.” The “GIS Journey” video gives a laymen view of how GIS is shaping the world.

If your friend doesn’t have time for a short video or you want to come up with the easy answer, Reams recommends: “GIS stands for Geographic Information Systems. It’s a computer-based system for collecting, viewing, analyzing, storing, and transforming spatial data, or data with a geographic location.”