Geographic information systems are maps that give you more than just a flat representation of an area's shape or size. GIS maps can also give you the population, the census tract numbers, the exact size or any other information you need -- as long as you input the data. For engineers, they represent the opportunity to discover what's on, around or under a construction or development site while they save money and improve project management.
Exactly What is GIS?
Geographic information systems can link geology, history, emergency planning or any other aspect of an engineering project a specific point on a map. You can use GIS to obtain exact sizes of parcels of land, determine what’s present on or under the ground, or what happened or is happening at particular locations. For example, Richard III, king of England from 1483 to 1485, died at the battle of Bosworth Field and was buried at the Grey Friars monastery at Leicester, UK, long since demolished. If you enter the coordinates of his tomb into a GIS system, it will show you that the location is currently a public parking lot belonging to the Leicester city council.
Hardcopy vs. Computerized Documents
Traditional engineering drawings, such as the drawings related to land development, drainage or structural engineering drawings, have common characteristics. They’re portable, cheap to produce and easily -- and often, indiscriminately -- passed between project team members, government officials and project owners. GIS allows team members remote access to all the data without having to search through bundles of drawings. GIS also allows restriction of the data to authorized users, eliminating the possibility of drawings falling into the hands of unauthorized persons.
The Geographic Approach … to Anything
ESRI, the company who first developed GIS, says GIS allows you to ask a question about a specific place. GIS will aid you in acquiring and assembling the date, help you examine and analyze the data and act on the information GIS produces. ESRI describes this “ask, acquire, examine, analyze and act” cycle as the geographic approach, because everything that happens or has happened or could happen is linked to geography. GIS links all of this information to geography and allows you to access it and analyze it, as long as you know where something happened. The only conditions are that someone must identify the data and enter the data into the GIS database.
Lower Cost, Better Management
Engineers that use GIS can save money -- they no longer have a need to own or maintain the expensive, oversize printers or supplies for drafting, such as paper and technical pens. Likewise, they no longer need to maintain a large staff of drafters, all drawing the same plot of land or the same structural detail by hand. Engineers only need to specify a location on the GIS map. This means improved communication between team members and better record keeping as changes in the ground occur. The engineer can tie changes in the ground to the project’s progress and progress to billing as steps in the project are completed.
Will Charpentier is a writer who specializes in boating and maritime subjects. A retired ship captain, Charpentier holds a doctorate in applied ocean science and engineering. He is also a certified marine technician and the author of a popular text on writing local history.