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Geomatics and GIS: Definitions and Scope

Geomatics Defined

Geomatics, also known as geoinformatics, is the science and technology of gathering, analysing, interpreting, distributing and using geographic information. Geomatics encompasses a broad range of disciplines including surveying and mapping, remote sensing, geographic information systems (GIS), and the Global Positioning System (GPS). (Geomatics Canada Web Site, 2000)

Definitions of GIS (Geographic Information Systems)

Geographic information systems are among the most exciting and powerful geomatics decision-making tools in the world. A GIS uses computer technology to integrate, manipulate and display a wide range of information to create a picture of an area's geography, environment and socio-economic characteristics. Beginning with a computerised topographic map as its base, a GIS overlays and integrates graphic and textual information from separate databases. The end result is a customised and reliable tool that can support decision making and problem solving and provide almost instantaneous answers to complex questions. (Geomatics Canada Web Site, 2000)

In their book "Geographic Information Systems: An Introduction" published in 1990, Star and Estes define GIS as an information system designed to work with data referenced by spatial or geographic co-ordinates. According to the same authors, a GIS is both a database system with specific capabilities for spatially-referenced data, as well as a set of operations for working with the data, i.e., analysing it.

Lang (2000) provides this definition: "A geographic information system (GIS) is a computer system for analysing and mapping just about anything, moving or stationary. A GIS integrates common database operations, such as query and statistical analysis, with the ability to see how data relates in space and time. The maps produced with a GIS are useful for showing places and the events that occur there, like outbreaks of disease. They are useful for analysing and visualising any system that's spatial or spatio-temporal (that also changes with time), for mapping a patient's heart or brain, for instance, or showing a breakdown of diagnoses on a map of the body, or even indicating which beds on a hospital floor are occupied, for how long, and by whom."

GIS is not merely a software package. William Henriques defines GIS as an organised collection of computer hardware, software, geographic/spatial data, complementary technologies, and personnel designed to efficiently capture, store, update, manipulate, analyse, and display all forms of geographically referenced information. The user becomes part of the GIS whenever complicated analyses, such a spatial analysis and modelling, are carried out.

GIS Components

Hall (1999) stresses the point that GIS are much more than simply computer mapping systems and can do much more than merely outputting improved digital versions of static, paper-based maps. GIS blend map production, image presentation and statistical analysis capabilities into a powerful analytical tool that can be applied to a variety of problems.

The role of GIS in the general planning process for site selection, environmental management, and other geographically-dependent applications - From B. Davis, GIS: A Visual Approach, 1996 Onword Press, Santa Fe, NM

Another way to describe GIS would be as information management tools  for producing "smart maps" where the geographic features on these maps are linked to tables of information about them. A spreadsheet or database table alone is not easy to interpret (even with the help of conventional database and spreadsheet manipulation and querying tools). These GIS "smart maps" go beyond conventional spreadsheet and database tables, helping us discover and visualise new patterns and relationships by allowing different information layers to be matched, interlinked, queried and analysed, thus producing new knowledge and hypotheses for further investigation. This can be considered a form of data-mining.


A database table like this one is very difficult to interpret and many
very useful patterns in it might remain hidden and undiscovered.

Today, geographic information systems are commonly used for everything one can imagine, from basic mapping to supporting resource exploration and development, from environmental management to the planning and administration of transportation and telecommunications systems, utility infrastructures, urban development and land use.

ESRI promotional video introducing geographic information systems (Format: RealVideo; Running Time: 4:52 min. - Source: ESRI, US)

GIS in Health and Healthcare

Ten years ago, extensive GIS analysis was limited to Unix computers and command line software packages, but today's user-friendly Windows-based software and cheap PCs with powerful Pentium processors and advanced graphics hardware have put high-end GIS tools within the reach of healthcare professionals.

GIS systems allow medical geographers to collate and analyse internal and/or external data variables far more readily than is possible with traditional research techniques. The various types of data referenced spatially in a GIS system are often referred to as "layers". These layers work much like a set of clear transparent overlays, laid one on top of the other, and allow the analyst to consider the relationships between layers which could represent, for example, information about transportation networks, healthcare facilities, population characteristics, disease distribution, socio-economic status, and other characteristics.

GIS Integrates Disparate Data: GIS Layers/Datasets in Healthcare (Source: ESRI)

By using GIS to monitor health conditions, disease and economic indicators in different parts of a city or country, policymakers can develop and implement more effective healthcare plans (in terms of costs and outcomes), and also improve their business development and public, patient and professional education strategies.  (Geomatics Canada Web Site, 2000)

For example, if GIS identifies an uneven patterning of disease, with an excess risk of, say, heart disease in certain areas, healthcare planners will wish to address this spatial variation, perhaps by targeting resources to try to reduce the elevated rates in certain areas. They should also make sure that these resources are accessible by the population being targeted (i.e., reasonably located in relation to the target population), and this is another area where GIS can help. Spatio-temporal analysis and modelling can be also used to monitor (evaluate) the effects of such healthcare plans when implemented and even to simulate (predict) many "what-if" scenarios before implementing them. (Gatrell and Senior, 1999)

GIS success in epidemiology and disease outbreak surveillance is well known (WHO). Also, a growing number of healthcare and pharmaceutical businesses are using GIS to assess market potential, develop marketing campaigns and identify the best possible locations for manufacturing facilities and service outlets.  (Geomatics Canada Web Site, 2000)

GIS programs are commonly used outside the health sector to create electronic maps of road networks for the purpose of improving rush-hour traffic management, delivery routes and road repair and construction projects. A world-wide market also exists for integrating GIS and Global Positioning System technology for vehicle guidance systems. In the context of healthcare, this could mean saving lives if applied to emergency systems like the UK 999 emergency system. By combining data on traffic flow at different times of the day with road network information, GIS applications can be used to give ambulance drivers, fire-fighters and police the quickest possible route to accidents and other emergency situations. (Geomatics Canada Web Site, 2000)

See also: Part 4: Some Applications of Geomatics in the Health Sector and Three views of GIS

 

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