6 min read

Due to the hype around big data and artificial intelligence, it can be easy to miss some of the powerful but specific ways data can be truly impactful. One of the most important areas of modern data analysis that rarely gets given its due is geospatial analysis. At a time when both the natural and human worlds are going through a period of seismic change, the ability to throw a spotlight on issues of climate and population change is as transformative as the smartest chatbot (indeed, probably much more transformative).

The foundation of geospatial analysis are GIS systems. GIS, in case you’re new to the field ,is an acronym for Geographic Information System. GIS applications and tools allow you to store, manipulate, analyze, and visualize data that corresponds to different aspects of the existing environment. Central to this is topographical information, but it could also include many other aspects, from contours and slopes, the built environment, land types and bodies of water. In the context of climate and human geography it’s easy to see how this kind of data can help us see the bigger picture – quite literally – behind what’s happening in our region, across our countries, and indeed, across the whole world.

The history of geospatial analysis is a testament to its power. In 1854 physician John Snow identified the source of a cholera outbreak in London by marking out the homes of victims on a map. The cluster of victims that Snow’s map revealed led him to an infected water supply.

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How GIS and geospatial analysis is being used today

While this example is, of course, incredibly low-tech, it highlights exactly why geospatial analysis and GIS tools can be so valuable. To bring us up to date, there are many more examples of how geospatial analysis is making a real impact in social and environmental issues. This article on Forbes, for example, details some of the ways in which GIS projects are helping to uncover information that offers some unique insights on the history of racism, and its continuing reality today. The list includes a map of historical lynchings occurring between 1877 and 1950, and a map by the Urban Institute that shows the reality of racial segregation in U.S. schools in the 21st century.

That’s just a small snapshot – there are a huge range of incredible GIS projects that are having a massive impact on both how we understand issues, but even on policy. That’s analytics enacting real, demonstrable change.

Here are a few of the different areas in which GIS is being used:

How GIS can be used in agriculture

  • GIS can be used to tackle crop diseases by identifying issues across a large area of land.
  • It’s possible to gain a deeper insight into what can drive improvements to crop yields by looking at the geographic and environmental factors that influence successful growth.

How GIS can be used in retail

  • GIS can help provide an insight on the relationship between consumer behavior and factors such as weather and congestion.
  • It can also be used to better understand how consumers interact with products in shops. This can influence things like store design and product placement.

How GIS can be used in meteorology and climate science

  • Without GIS, it would be impossible to properly understand and visualise rainfall around the world.
  • GIS can also be used to make predictions about the weather. For example, identifying anomalies in patterns and trends could indicate extreme weather events.

How GIS can be used in medicine and health

  • As we saw in the example above, by identifying clusters of disease, it becomes much easier to determine the causes of certain illnesses.
  • GIS can also help us better understand the relationship between illness and environment – like pollution and asthma.

How GIS can be used for humanitarian purposes

  • Geospatial tools can help humanitarian teams to understand patterns of violence in given areas. This can help them to better manage and distribute resources and support to where it’s needed (Map Kibera is a great example of how this can be done).
  • GIS tools are good at helping to bridge the gap between local populations and humanitarian workers in times of crisis. For example, during the Haiti earthquake non-profit tech company Ushahidi’s product helped to collate and coordinate reports from across the island. This made it possible to align what might have otherwise been a mess of data and information.

There are many, many more examples of GIS being used for both commercial and non-profit purposes. If you want an in-depth look at a huge range of examples, it’s well worth checking out this article, which features 1000 GIS projects.

Although geospatial analysis can be used across many different domains, all the examples above have a trend running through them: they all help us to understand the impact of space and geography. From social mobility and academic opportunity to soil erosion, GIS and other geospatial tools are brilliant because they help us to identify relationships that we might otherwise be unable to see.

GIS and geospatial analysis project ideas

This is an important point if you’re not sure where to start when it comes to starting a new GIS project. Forget the data (to begin with at least) and just think about what sort of questions you’d like to answer.

The list is potentially endless, but here are some questions that I thought of just off the top of my head:

  • Are there certain parts of your region more prone to flooding?
  • Why are certain parts of your town congested and not others?
  • Do economically marginalised people have to travel further to receive healthcare?
  • Does one part of your region receive more rainfall/snowfall than other parts?
  • Are there more new buildings in one area than another?

Getting this right is integral to any good analysis project. Ultimately it’s what makes the whole thing worthwhile.

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Where to find data for a GIS project

Once you’ve decided on something you want to find out, the next part is to collect your data. This can be tricky, but there are nevertheless a massive range of free data sources you can use for your project. This web page has a comprehensive collection of datasets; while it might not have exactly what you’re looking for, it’s nevertheless a good place to begin if you simply want to try something out.

Conclusion: Geospatial analysis is one of the most exciting and potentially transformative fields in analytics

GIS and geospatial analysis is quite literally rooted in the real world. In the maps and visualizations that we create we’re able to offer unique perspectives on history or provide practical guidance on how we should act, what we need to do. This is significant: all too often technology can feel like its divorced from reality, as if it is folded into its own world that has no connection to real people.

So, be ambitious, and be bold with your next GIS project: who knows what impact it could have.

Co-editor of the Packt Hub. Interested in politics, tech culture, and how software and business are changing each other.