A geographic information system (GIS), or geographical information system, is any system that captures, stores, analyzes, manages, and presents data that are linked to location.
Technically, a GIS is a system that includes mapping software and its application to cartography, remote sensing, land surveying, mathematics, photogrammetry, geography, and tools that can be implemented with GIS software. Still, many refer to "Geographic Information System" as "GIS" even though it doesn't cover all tools connected to topology.
In the strictest sense, the term describes any information system that integrates, stores, edits, analyzes, shares, and displays geographic information. In a more generic sense, GIS applications are tools that allow users to create interactive queries (user-created searches), analyze spatial information, edit data, maps, and present the results of all these operations. Geographic Information Science is the science underlying the geographic concepts, applications and systems, taught in degree and GIS Certificate programs at many universities.
In the simplest terms, GIS is the merging of cartography and database technology. Consumer users would likely be familiar with applications for finding driving directions, like a GPS program on their hand-held device. GPS (Global Positioning System) is the real-time location component that uses satellites to show your current position, "where am I now" on your device. GPS technology is discussed in more detail later in this article.
GIS technology can be used for scientific investigations, resource management, asset management, archaeology, environmental impact assessment, urban planning, cartography, criminology, geographic history, marketing, logistics, prospectivity mapping, and other purposes. For example, GIS might allow emergency planners to easily calculate emergency response times (i.e. logistics) in the event of a natural disaster, GIS might be used to find wetlands that need protection from pollution, or GIS can be used by a company to site a new business location to take advantage of a previously under-served market.
About 15,500 years ago, on the walls of caves near Lascaux, France, Cro-Magnon hunters drew pictures of the animals they hunted. Associated with the animal drawings are track lines and tallies thought to depict migration routes. While simplistic in comparison to modern technologies, these early records mimic the two-element structure of modern GIS, an image associated with attribute information.
In 1854, John Snow depicted a cholera outbreak in London using points to represent the locations of some individual cases, possibly the earliest use of the geographic method. His study of the distribution of cholera led to the source of the disease, a contaminated water pump (the Broad Street Pump, whose handle he disconnected, thus terminating the outbreak) within the heart of the cholera outbreak.
While the basic elements of topography and theme existed previously in cartography, the John Snow map was unique, using cartographic methods not only to depict but also to analyze clusters of geographically dependent phenomena for the first time.
The early 20th century saw the development of photolithography, by which maps were separated into layers. Computer hardware development spurred by nuclear weapon research led to general-purpose computer "mapping" applications by the early 1960s.
The year 1962 saw the development of the world's first true operational GIS in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada by the federal Department of Forestry and Rural Development. Developed by Dr. Roger Tomlinson, it was called the "Canada Geographic Information System" (CGIS) and was used to store, analyze, and manipulate data collected for the Canada Land Inventory (CLI) – an effort to determine the land capability for rural Canada by mapping information about soils, agriculture, recreation, wildlife, waterfowl, forestry, and land use at a scale of 1:50,000. A rating classification factor was also added to permit analysis.
CGIS was the world's first such system and an improvement over "mapping" applications as it provided capabilities for overlay, measurement, and digitizing/scanning. It supported a national coordinate system that spanned the continent, coded lines as "arcs" having a true embedded topology, and it stored the attribute and locational information in separate files. As a result of this, Tomlinson has become known as the "father of GIS," particularly for his use of overlays in promoting the spatial analysis of convergent geographic data. CGIS lasted into the 1990s and built the largest digital land resource database in Canada. It was developed as a mainframe based system in support of federal and provincial resource planning and management. Its strength was continent-wide analysis of complex datasets. The CGIS was never available in a commercial form.
In 1964, Howard T Fisher formed the Laboratory for Computer Graphics and Spatial Analysis at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (LCGSA 1965-1991), where a number of important theoretical concepts in spatial data handling were developed, and which by the 1970s had distributed seminal software code and systems, such as 'SYMAP', 'GRID', and 'ODYSSEY' -- which served as literal and inspirational sources for subsequent commercial development to universities, research centers, and corporations worldwide.
By the early 1980s, M&S Computing (later Intergraph), Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) and CARIS (Computer Aided Resource Information System) emerged as commercial vendors of GIS software, successfully incorporating many of the CGIS features, combining the first generation approach to separation of spatial and attribute information with a second generation approach to organizing attribute data into database structures. In parallel, the development of two public domain systems began in the late 1970s and early 1980s. MOSS, the Map Overlay and Statistical System project started in 1977 in Fort Collins, Colorado under the auspices of the Western Energy and Land Use Team (WELUT) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. GRASS GIS was begun in 1982 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineering Research Laboratory (USA-CERL) in Champaign, Illinois, a branch of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to meet the need of the U.S. military for software for land management and environmental planning. The later 1980s and 1990s industry growth were spurred on by the growing use of GIS on Unix workstations and the personal computer. By the end of the 20th century, the rapid growth in various systems had been consolidated and standardized on relatively few platforms, and users were beginning to export the concept of viewing GIS data over the Internet, requiring data format and transfer standards. More recently, a growing number of free, open source GIS packages run on a range of operating systems and can be customized to perform specific tasks.
Modern GIS technologies use digital information, for which various digitized data creation methods are used. The most common method of data creation is digitization, where a hard copy map or survey plan is transferred into a digital medium through the use of a computer-aided design (CAD) program, and geo-referencing capabilities. With the wide availability of ortho-rectified imagery (both from satellite and aerial sources), heads-up digitizing is becoming the main avenue through which geographic data is extracted. Heads-up digitizing involves the tracing of geographic data directly on top of the aerial imagery instead of by the traditional method of tracing the geographic form on a separate digitizing tablet (heads-down digitizing).
Location may be annotated by x, y, and z coordinates of longitude, latitude, and elevation, or by other geocode systems like ZIP Codes or by highway mile markers. Any variable that can be located spatially can be fed into a GIS. Several computer databases that can be directly entered into a GIS are being produced by government agencies and non-government organizations. Different kinds of data in map form can be entered into a GIS.
A GIS (Geographic Information System) can also convert existing digital information, which may not yet be in map form, into forms it can recognize and use. For example, digital satellite images generated through remote sensing can be analyzed to produce a map-like layer of digital information about vegetative covers. Another fairly recently developed resource for naming GIS objects is the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names (GTGN), which is a structured vocabulary containing around 1,000,000 names and other information about places.
Likewise, census or hydrological tabular data can be displayed in map-like form, serving as layers of thematic information in a GIS map layout.
GIS data represents real world objects (roads, land use, elevation) with digital data. Real world objects can be divided into two abstractions: discrete objects (a house) and continuous fields (rain fall amount or elevation). Traditionally, there are two broad methods used to store data in a GIS for both abstractions: Raster and Vector. A new hybrid method of storing data is point clouds, which combine 3d points with RGB information at each point, returning a "3d color image".
A raster data type is, in essence, any type of digital image represented in grids. Anyone who is familiar with digital photography will recognize the pixel as the smallest individual unit of an image. A combination of these pixels will create an image, distinct from the commonly used scalable vector graphics which are the basis of the vector model. While a digital image is concerned with the output as representation of reality, in a photograph or art transferred to computer, the raster data type will reflect an abstraction of reality. Aerial photos are one commonly used form of raster data, with only one purpose, to display a detailed image on a map or for the purposes of digitization. Other raster data sets will contain information regarding elevation, a DEM, or reflectance of a particular wavelength of light, LANDSAT.
Raster data type consists of rows and columns of cells, with each cell storing a single value. Raster data can be images (raster images) with each pixel (or cell) containing a color value. Additional values recorded for each cell may be a discrete value, such as land use, a continuous value, such as temperature, or a null value if no data is available. While a raster cell stores a single value, it can be extended by using raster bands to represent RGB (red, green, blue) colors, colormaps (a mapping between a thematic code and RGB value), or an extended attribute table with one row for each unique cell value. The resolution of the raster data set is its cell width in ground units.
Raster data is stored in various formats; from a standard file-based structure of TIF, JPEG, etc. to binary large object (BLOB) data stored directly in a relational database management system (RDBMS) similar to other vector-based feature classes. Database storage, when properly indexed, typically allows for quicker retrieval of the raster data but can require storage of millions of significantly-sized records.
In a GIS, geographical features are often expressed as vectors, by considering those features as geometrical shapes. Different geographical features are expressed by different types of geometry:
Each of these geometries is linked to a row in a database that describes their attributes. For example, a database that describes lakes may contain a lake's depth, water quality, pollution level. This information can be used to make a map to describe a particular attribute of the dataset. For example, lakes could be coloured depending on level of pollution. Different geometries can also be compared. For example, the GIS could be used to identify all wells (point geometry) that are within one kilometre of a lake (polygon geometry) that has a high level of pollution.
Vector features can be made to respect spatial integrity through the application of topology rules such as 'polygons must not overlap'. Vector data can also be used to represent continuously varying phenomena. Contour lines and triangulated irregular networks (TIN) are used to represent elevation or other continuously changing values. TINs record values at point locations, which are connected by lines to form an irregular mesh of triangles. The face of the triangles represent the terrain surface.
There are some important advantages and disadvantages to using a raster or vector data model to represent reality:
- Raster datasets record a value for all points in the area covered which may require more storage space than representing data in a vector format that can store data only where needed.
- Raster data allows easy implementation of overlay operations, which are more difficult with vector data.
- Vector data can be displayed as vector graphics used on traditional maps, whereas raster data will appear as an image that may have a blocky appearance for object boundaries. (depending on the resolution of the raster file)
- Vector data can be easier to register, scale, and re-project, which can simplify combining vector layers from different sources.
- Vector data is more compatible with relational database environments, where they can be part of a relational table as a normal column and processed using a multitude of operators.
- Vector file sizes are usually smaller than raster data, which can be 10 to 100 times larger than vector data (depending on resolution).
- Vector data is simpler to update and maintain, whereas a raster image will have to be completely reproduced. (Example: a new road is added).
- Vector data allows much more analysis capability, especially for "networks" such as roads, power, rail, telecommunications, etc. (Examples: Best route, largest port, airfields connected to two-lane highways). Raster data will not have all the characteristics of the features it displays.
Additional non-spatial data can also be stored along with the spatial data represented by the coordinates of a vector geometry or the position of a raster cell. In vector data, the additional data contains attributes of the feature. For example, a forest inventory polygon may also have an identifier value and information about tree species. In raster data the cell value can store attribute information, but it can also be used as an identifier that can relate to records in another table.
Software is currently being developed to support spatial and non-spatial decision-making, with the solutions to spatial problems being are integrated with solutions to non-spatial problems. The end result with these Flexible Spatial Decision-Making Support Systems (FSDSS) is expected to be that non-experts will be able to use GIS, along with spatial criteria, and simply integrate their non-spatial criteria to view solutions to multi-criteria problems. This system is intended to assist decision-making.
Data capture—entering information into the system—consumes much of the time of GIS practitioners. There are a variety of methods used to enter data into a GIS where it is stored in a digital format.
Existing data printed on paper or PET film maps can be digitized or scanned to produce digital data. A digitizer produces vector data as an operator traces points, lines, and polygon boundaries from a map. Scanning a map results in raster data that could be further processed to produce vector data.
Survey data can be directly entered into a GIS from digital data collection systems on survey instruments using a technique called Coordinate Geometry (COGO). Positions from a Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) like Global Positioning System (GPS), another survey tool, can also be directly entered into a GIS.
Remotely sensed data also plays an important role in data collection and consist of sensors attached to a platform. Sensors include cameras, digital scanners and LIDAR, while platforms usually consist of aircraft and satellites.
The majority of digital data currently comes from photo interpretation of aerial photographs. Soft copy workstations are used to digitize features directly from stereo pairs of digital photographs. These systems allow data to be captured in two and three dimensions, with elevations measured directly from a stereo pair using principles of photogrammetry. Currently, analog aerial photos are scanned before being entered into a soft copy system, but as high quality digital cameras become cheaper this step will be skipped.
Satellite remote sensing provides another important source of spatial data. Here satellites use different sensor packages to passively measure the reflectance from parts of the electromagnetic spectrum or radio waves that were sent out from an active sensor such as radar. Remote sensing collects raster data that can be further processed using different bands to identify objects and classes of interest, such as land cover.
When data is captured, the user should consider if the data should be captured with either a relative accuracy or absolute accuracy, since this could not only influence how information will be interpreted but also the cost of data capture.
In addition to collecting and entering spatial data, attribute data is also entered into a GIS. For vector data, this includes additional information about the objects represented in the system.
After entering data into a GIS, the data usually requires editing, to remove errors, or further processing. For vector data it must be made "topologically correct" before it can be used for some advanced analysis. For example, in a road network, lines must connect with nodes at an intersection. Errors such as undershoots and overshoots must also be removed. For scanned maps, blemishes on the source map may need to be removed from the resulting raster. For example, a fleck of dirt might connect two lines that should not be connected.
Data restructuring can be performed by a GIS to convert data into different formats. For example, a GIS may be used to convert a satellite image map to a vector structure by generating lines around all cells with the same classification, while determining the cell spatial relationships, such as adjacency or inclusion.
More advanced data processing can occur with image processing, a technique developed in the late 1960s by NASA and the private sector to provide contrast enhancement, false colour rendering and a variety of other techniques including use of two dimensional Fourier transforms.
Since digital data is collected and stored in various ways, the two data sources may not be entirely compatible. So a GIS must be able to convert geographic data from one structure to another.
A property ownership map and a soils map might show data at different scales. Map information in a GIS must be manipulated so that it registers, or fits, with information gathered from other maps. Before the digital data can be analyzed, they may have to undergo other manipulations—projection and coordinate conversions, for example—that integrate them into a GIS.
The earth can be represented by various models, each of which may provide a different set of coordinates (e.g., latitude, longitude, elevation) for any given point on the Earth's surface. The simplest model is to assume the earth is a perfect sphere. As more measurements of the earth have accumulated, the models of the earth have become more sophisticated and more accurate. In fact, there are models that apply to different areas of the earth to provide increased accuracy (e.g., North American Datum, 1927 - NAD27 - works well in North America, but not in Europe). See datum (geodesy) for more information.
Projection is a fundamental component of map making. A projection is a mathematical means of transferring information from a model of the Earth, which represents a three-dimensional curved surface, to a two-dimensional medium—paper or a computer screen. Different projections are used for different types of maps because each projection particularly suits specific uses. For example, a projection that accurately represents the shapes of the continents will distort their relative sizes. See Map projection for more information.
Since much of the information in a GIS comes from existing maps, a GIS uses the processing power of the computer to transform digital information, gathered from sources with different projections and/or different coordinate systems, to a common projection and coordinate system. For images, this process is called rectification.
Today, even laypeople are aware of GPS used for locating in terms of latitude, longitude and height. Many people are aware of Google Earth and even GIS. In this scenario, however, majority of us misunderstands latitude and longitude. Authalic coordinates are what generally conceived as latitude and longitude, in which the Earth is assumed as spherical in shape. In day-to-day life, the coordinates we see on maps such as those from GPS are geodetic latitude and longitude. It is also imperative to know the datum of the map in use; and if the datum is changed, any selected location can have different geodetic coordinates.
Given the vast range of spatial analysis techniques that have been developed over the past half century, any summary or review can only cover the subject to a limited depth. This is a rapidly changing field, and GIS packages are increasingly including analytical tools as standard built-in facilities or as optional toolsets, add-ins or 'analysts'. In many instances such facilities are provided by the original software suppliers (commercial vendors or collaborative non commercial development teams), whilst in other cases facilities have been developed and are provided by third parties. Furthermore, many products offer software development kits (SDKs), programming languages and language support, scripting facilities and/or special interfaces for developing one’s own analytical tools or variants. The website Geospatial Analysis and associated book/ebook attempt to provide a reasonably comprehensive guide to the subject. The impact of these myriad paths to perform spatial analysis create a new dimension to business intelligence termed "spatial intelligence" which, when delivered via intranet, democratizes access to operational sorts not usually privy to this type of information.
It is difficult to relate wetlands maps to rainfall amounts recorded at different points such as airports, television stations, and high schools. A GIS, however, can be used to depict two- and three-dimensional characteristics of the Earth's surface, subsurface, and atmosphere from information points. For example, a GIS can quickly generate a map with isopleth or contour lines that indicate differing amounts of rainfall.
Such a map can be thought of as a rainfall contour map. Many sophisticated methods can estimate the characteristics of surfaces from a limited number of point measurements. A two-dimensional contour map created from the surface modeling of rainfall point measurements may be overlaid and analyzed with any other map in a GIS covering the same area.
Additionally, from a series of three-dimensional points, or digital elevation model, isopleth lines representing elevation contours can be generated, along with slope analysis, shaded relief, and other elevation products. Watersheds can be easily defined for any given reach, by computing all of the areas contiguous and uphill from any given point of interest. Similarly, an expected thalweg of where surface water would want to travel in intermittent and permanent streams can be computed from elevation data in the GIS.
A GIS can recognize and analyze the spatial relationships that exist within digitally stored spatial data. These topological relationships allow complex spatial modelling and analysis to be performed. Topological relationships between geometric entities traditionally include adjacency (what adjoins what), containment (what encloses what), and proximity (how close something is to something else).
If all the factories near a wetland were accidentally to release chemicals into the river at the same time, how long would it take for a damaging amount of pollutant to enter the wetland reserve? A GIS can simulate the routing of materials along a linear network. Values such as slope, speed limit, or pipe diameter can be incorporated into network modeling to represent the flow of the phenomenon more accurately. Network modelling is commonly employed in transportation planning, hydrology modeling, and infrastructure modeling.
The term "cartographic modeling" was (probably) coined by Dana Tomlin in his PhD dissertation and later in his book which has the term in the title. Cartographic modeling refers to a process where several thematic layers of the same area are produced, processed, and analyzed. Tomlin used raster layers, but the overlay method (see below) can be used more generally. Operations on map layers can be combined into algorithms, and eventually into simulation or optimization models.
The combination of several spatial datasets (points, lines or polygons) creates a new output vector dataset, visually similar to stacking several maps of the same region. These overlays are similar to mathematical Venn diagram overlays. A union overlay combines the geographic features and attribute tables of both inputs into a single new output. An intersect overlay defines the area where both inputs overlap and retains a set of attribute fields for each. A symmetric difference overlay defines an output area that includes the total area of both inputs except for the overlapping area.
Data extraction is a GIS process similar to vector overlay, though it can be used in either vector or raster data analysis. Rather than combining the properties and features of both datasets, data extraction involves using a "clip" or "mask" to extract the features of one data set that fall within the spatial extent of another dataset.
In raster data analysis, the overlay of datasets is accomplished through a process known as "local operation on multiple rasters" or "map algebra," through a function that combines the values of each raster's matrix. This function may weigh some inputs more than others through use of an "index model" that reflects the influence of various factors upon a geographic phenomenon.
Digital cartography and GIS both encode spatial relationships in structured formal representations. GIS is used in digital cartography modeling as a (semi)automated process of making maps, so called Automated Cartography. In practice, it can be a subset of a GIS, within which it is equivalent to the stage of visualization, since in most cases not all of the GIS functionality is used. Cartographic products can be either in a digital or in a hardcopy format. Powerful analysis techniques with different data representation can produce high-quality maps within a short time period. The main problem in Automated Cartography is to use a single set of data to produce multiple products at a variety of scales, a technique known as Generalization.
Geostatistics is a point-pattern analysis that produces field predictions from data points. It is a way of looking at the statistical properties of those special data. It is different from general applications of statistics because it employs the use of graph theory and matrix algebra to reduce the number of parameters in the data. Only the second-order properties of the GIS data are analyzed.
When phenomena are measured, the observation methods dictate the accuracy of any subsequent analysis. Due to the nature of the data (e.g. traffic patterns in an urban environment; weather patterns over the Pacific Ocean), a constant or dynamic degree of precision is always lost in the measurement. This loss of precision is determined from the scale and distribution of the data collection.
To determine the statistical relevance of the analysis, an average is determined so that points (gradients) outside of any immediate measurement can be included to determine their predicted behavior. This is due to the limitations of the applied statistic and data collection methods, and interpolation is required to predict the behavior of particles, points, and locations that are not directly measurable.
Interpolation is the process by which a surface is created, usually a raster dataset, through the input of data collected at a number of sample points. There are several forms of interpolation, each which treats the data differently, depending on the properties of the data set. In comparing interpolation methods, the first consideration should be whether or not the source data will change (exact or approximate). Next is whether the method is subjective, a human interpretation, or objective. Then there is the nature of transitions between points: are they abrupt or gradual. Finally, there is whether a method is global (it uses the entire data set to form the model), or local where an algorithm is repeated for a small section of terrain.
Interpolation is a justified measurement because of a Spatial Autocorrelation Principle that recognizes that data collected at any position will have a great similarity to, or influence of those locations within its immediate vicinity.
Digital elevation models (DEM), triangulated irregular networks (TIN), Edge finding algorithms, Theissen Polygons, Fourier analysis, Weighted moving averages, Inverse Distance Weighted, Moving averages, Kriging, Spline, and Trend surface analysis are all mathematical methods to produce interpolative data.
Geocoding is interpolating spatial locations (X,Y coordinates) from street addresses or any other spatially referenced data such as ZIP Codes, parcel lots and address locations. A reference theme is required to geocode individual addresses, such as a road centerline file with address ranges. The individual address locations have historically been interpolated, or estimated, by examining address ranges along a road segment. These are usually provided in the form of a table or database. The GIS will then place a dot approximately where that address belongs along the segment of centerline. For example, an address point of 500 will be at the midpoint of a line segment that starts with address 1 and ends with address 1000. Geocoding can also be applied against actual parcel data, typically from municipal tax maps. In this case, the result of the geocoding will be an actually positioned space as opposed to an interpolated point. This approach is being increasingly used to provide more precise location information.
It should be noted that there are several (potentially dangerous) caveats that are often overlooked when using interpolation. See the full entry for Geocoding for more information.
Various algorithms are used to help with address matching when the spellings of addresses differ. Address information that a particular entity or organization has data on, such as the post office, may not entirely match the reference theme. There could be variations in street name spelling, community name, etc. Consequently, the user generally has the ability to make matching criteria more stringent, or to relax those parameters so that more addresses will be mapped. Care must be taken to review the results so as not to map addresses incorrectly due to overzealous matching parameters.
Reverse geocoding is the process of returning an estimated street address number as it relates to a given coordinate. For example, a user can click on a road centerline theme (thus providing a coordinate) and have information returned that reflects the estimated house number. This house number is interpolated from a range assigned to that road segment. If the user clicks at the midpoint of a segment that starts with address 1 and ends with 100, the returned value will be somewhere near 50. Note that reverse geocoding does not return actual addresses, only estimates of what should be there based on the predetermined range.
Cartography is the design and production of maps, or visual representations of spatial data. The vast majority of modern cartography is done with the help of computers, usually using a GIS but production quality cartography is also achieved by importing layers into a design program to refine it. Most GIS software gives the user substantial control over the appearance of the data.
Cartographic work serves two major functions:
First, it produces graphics on the screen or on paper that convey the results of analysis to the people who make decisions about resources. Wall maps and other graphics can be generated, allowing the viewer to visualize and thereby understand the results of analyses or simulations of potential events. Web Map Servers facilitate distribution of generated maps through web browsers using various implementations of web-based application programming interfaces (AJAX, Java, Flash, etc).
Second, other database information can be generated for further analysis or use. An example would be a list of all addresses within one mile (1.6 km) of a toxic spill.
Traditional maps are abstractions of the real world, a sampling of important elements portrayed on a sheet of paper with symbols to represent physical objects. People who use maps must interpret these symbols. Topographic maps show the shape of land surface with contour lines or with shaded relief.
Today, graphic display techniques such as shading based on altitude in a GIS can make relationships among map elements visible, heightening one's ability to extract and analyze information. For example, two types of data were combined in a GIS to produce a perspective view of a portion of San Mateo County, California.
A GIS was used to register and combine the two images to render the three-dimensional perspective view looking down the San Andreas Fault, using the Thematic Mapper image pixels, but shaded using the elevation of the landforms. The GIS display depends on the viewing point of the observer and time of day of the display, to properly render the shadows created by the sun's rays at that latitude, longitude, and time of day.
An archeochrome is a new way of displaying spatial data. It is a thematic on a 3D map that is applied to a specific building or a part of a building. It is suited to the visual display of heat loss data.
Spatial ETL tools provide the data processing functionality of traditional Extract, Transform, Load (ETL) software, but with a primary focus on the ability to manage spatial data. They provide GIS users with the ability to translate data between different standards and proprietary formats, whilst geometrically transforming the data en-route.
Many disciplines can benefit from GIS technology. An active GIS market has resulted in lower costs and continual improvements in the hardware and software components of GIS. These developments will, in turn, result in a much wider use of the technology throughout science, government, business, and industry, with applications including real estate, public health, crime mapping, national defense, sustainable development, natural resources, landscape architecture, archaeology, regional and community planning, transportation and logistics. GIS is also diverging into location-based services (LBS). LBS allows GPS enabled mobile devices to display their location in relation to fixed assets (nearest restaurant, gas station, fire hydrant), mobile assets (friends, children, police car) or to relay their position back to a central server for display or other processing. These services continue to develop with the increased integration of GPS functionality with increasingly powerful mobile electronics (cell phones, PDAs, laptops).
The Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) is an international industry consortium of 384 companies, government agencies, universities and individuals  participating in a consensus process to develop publicly available geoprocessing specifications. Open interfaces and protocols defined by OpenGIS Specifications support interoperable solutions that "geo-enable" the Web, wireless and location-based services, and mainstream IT, and empower technology developers to make complex spatial information and services accessible and useful with all kinds of applications. Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) protocols include Web Map Service (WMS) and Web Feature Service (WFS).
GIS products are broken down by the OGC into two categories, based on how completely and accurately the software follows the OGC specifications.
Compliant Products are software products that comply to OGC's OpenGIS Specifications. When a product has been tested and certified as compliant through the OGC Testing Program, the product is automatically registered as "compliant" on this site.
Implementing Products are software products that implement OpenGIS Specifications but have not yet passed a compliance test. Compliance tests are not available for all specifications. Developers can register their products as implementing draft or approved specifications, though OGC reserves the right to review and verify each entry.
Some of them, like Google Maps and OpenLayers, expose an API that enable users to create custom applications. These toolkits commonly offer street maps, aerial/satellite imagery, geocoding, searches, and routing functionality.
Other applications for publishing geographic information on the web include GeoBase (Telogis GIS software), Smallworld's SIAS or GSS, MapInfo's MapXtreme or PlanAcess  or Stratus Connect, Cadcorp's GeognoSIS, Intergraph's GeoMedia WebMap (TM), ESRI's ArcIMS, ArcGIS Server, Autodesk's Mapguide, SeaTrails' AtlasAlive, ObjectFX's Web Mapping Tools and the open source MapServer or GeoServer.
Maps have traditionally been used to explore the Earth and to exploit its resources. GIS technology, as an expansion of cartographic science, has enhanced the efficiency and analytic power of traditional mapping. Now, as the scientific community recognizes the environmental consequences of anthropogenic activities influencing climate change, GIS technology is becoming an essential tool to understand the impacts of this change over time. GIS enables combining various sources of data with existing maps map and up-to-date information from earth observation satellites along with the outputs of climate change models. This can help in understanding the effects of climate change on the complex natural systems. One of the classic examples of this is the study of Arctic Ice Melting.
The outputs from a GIS in form of maps combined with satellite imagery allow researchers to view their subjects in ways that literally never have been seen before. The images are also invaluable for conveying the changes due to climate change to non-scientists.
Prediction of the impact of climate change inherently involves many uncertainties stemming from data and models. GIS incorporated with uncertainty theory has been used to model the coastal impact of climate change, including inundation due to sea-level rise and storm erosion.
The condition of the Earth's surface, atmosphere, and subsurface can be examined by feeding satellite data into a GIS. GIS technology gives researchers the ability to examine the variations in Earth processes over days, months, and years.
As an example, the changes in vegetation vigor through a growing season can be animated to determine when drought was most extensive in a particular region. The resulting graphic, known as a normalized vegetation index, represents a rough measure of plant health. Working with two variables over time would then allow researchers to detect regional differences in the lag between a decline in rainfall and its effect on vegetation.
GIS technology and the availability of digital data on regional and global scales enable such analyses. The satellite sensor output used to generate a vegetation graphic is produced for example by the Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer (AVHRR). This sensor system detects the amounts of energy reflected from the Earth's surface across various bands of the spectrum for surface areas of about 1 square kilometer. The satellite sensor produces images of a particular location on the Earth twice a day. AVHRR and more recently the Moderate-Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) are only two of many sensor systems used for Earth surface analysis. More sensors will follow, generating ever greater amounts of data.
GIS and related technology will help greatly in the management and analysis of these large volumes of data, allowing for better understanding of terrestrial processes and better management of human activities to maintain world economic vitality and environmental quality.
In addition to the integration of time in environmental studies, GIS is also being explored for its ability to track and model the progress of humans throughout their daily routines. A concrete example of progress in this area is the recent release of time-specific population data by the US Census. In this data set, the populations of cities are shown for daytime and evening hours highlighting the pattern of concentration and dispersion generated by North American commuting patterns. The manipulation and generation of data required to produce this data would not have been possible without GIS.
Using models to project the data held by a GIS forward in time have enabled planners to test policy decisions. These systems are known as Spatial Decision Support Systems.
Tools and technologies emerging from the W3C's Semantic Web Activity are proving useful for data integration problems in information systems. Correspondingly, such technologies have been proposed as a means to facilitate interoperability and data reuse among GIS applications  and also to enable new analysis mechanisms.
Ontologies are a key component of this semantic approach as they allow a formal, machine-readable specification of the concepts and relationships in a given domain. This in turn allows a GIS to focus on the intended meaning of data rather than its syntax or structure. For example, reasoning that a land cover type classified as deciduous needleleaf trees in one dataset is a specialization of land cover type forest in another more roughly classified dataset can help a GIS automatically merge the two datasets under the more general land cover classification. Tentative ontologies have been developed in areas related to GIS applications, for example the hydrology ontology developed by the Ordnance Survey in the United Kingdom and the SWEET ontologies developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Also, simpler ontologies and semantic metadata standards are being proposed by the W3C Geo Incubator Group to represent geospatial data on the web.
Recent research results in this area can be seen in the International Conference on Geospatial Semantics and the Terra Cognita -- Directions to the Geospatial Semantic Web workshop at the International Semantic Web Conference.
With the popularization of GIS in decision making, scholars have begun to scrutinize the social implications of GIS. It has been argued that the production, distribution, utilization, and representation of geographic information are largely related with the social context. Other related topics include discussion on copyright, privacy, and censorship. A more optimistic social approach to GIS adoption is to use it as a tool for public participation.