At Geographic Data Support, we use geographical information systems (GIS) to capture, store, manipulate, analyze, manage, and present all types of spatial or geographical data. Our special GIS tools that allow us to create interactive queries (user-created searches), analyze spatial information, edit data in maps, and present the results of all these operations.
Our GIS and Database work covers the following areas:
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) programme, and geo-referencing capabilities. With the wide availability of ortho-rectified imagery (from satellites, aircraft, Helikites and UAVs), 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).
GIS data represents real objects (such as roads, land use, elevation, trees, waterways, etc.) with digital data determining the mix. Real objects can be divided into two abstractions: discrete objects (e.g., a house) and continuous fields (such as rainfall amount, or elevations). Traditionally, there are two broad methods used to store data in a GIS for both kinds of abstractions mapping references: raster images and vector. Points, lines, and polygons are the stuff of mapped location attribute references. A new hybrid method of storing data is that of identifying point clouds, which combine three-dimensional points with RGB information at each point, returning a “3D color image”. GIS thematic maps then are becoming more and more realistically visually descriptive of what they set out to show or determine.
Example of hardware for mapping (GPS and laser rangefinder) and data collection (rugged computer). The current trend for geographical information system (GIS) is that accurate mapping and data analysis are completed while in the field. Depicted hardware (field-map technology) is used mainly for forest inventories, monitoring and mapping.
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.
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.
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 color 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. In so doing, the implicit assumptions behind different ontologies and classifications require analysis. Object ontologies have gained increasing prominence as a consequence of object-oriented programming and sustained work by Barry Smith and co-workers.
Projections, coordinate systems, and registration
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 called datums that apply to different areas of the earth to provide increased accuracy.
GIS spatial analysis is a rapidly changing field, and GIS packages are increasingly including analytical tools as standard built-in facilities, as optional toolsets, as add-ins or ‘analysts’. In many instances these 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 increased availability has created a new dimension to business intelligence termed “spatial intelligence” which, when openly delivered via intranet, democratizes access to geographic and social network data. Geospatial intelligence, based on GIS spatial analysis, has also become a key element for security. GIS as a whole can be described as conversion to a vectorial representation or to any other digitisation process.
Slope and aspect
Slope can be defined as the steepness or gradient of a unit of terrain, usually measured as an angle in degrees or as a percentage. Aspect can be defined as the direction in which a unit of terrain faces. Aspect is usually expressed in degrees from north. Slope, aspect, and surface curvature in terrain analysis are all derived from neighborhood operations using elevation values of a cell’s adjacent neighbours. Slope is a function of resolution, and the spatial resolution used to calculate slope and aspect should always be specified.
It is difficult to relate wetlands maps to rainfall amounts recorded at different points such as airports, television stations, and 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. This GIS derived map can then provide additional information – such as the viability of water power potential as a renewable energy source. Similarly, GIS can be used to compare other renewable energy resources to find the best geographic potential for a region.
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).
Geometric networks are linear networks of objects that can be used to represent interconnected features, and to perform special spatial analysis on them. A geometric network is composed of edges, which are connected at junction points, similar to graphs in mathematics and computer science. Just like graphs, networks can have weight and flow assigned to its edges, which can be used to represent various interconnected features more accurately. Geometric networks are often used to model road networks and public utility networks, such as electric, gas, and water networks. Network modeling is also commonly employed in transportation planning, hydrology modeling, and infrastructure modeling.
GIS hydrological models can provide a spatial element that other hydrological models lack, with the analysis of variables such as slope, aspect and watershed or catchment area. Terrain analysis is fundamental to hydrology, since water always flows down a slope. As basic terrain analysis of a digital elevation model (DEM) involves calculation of slope and aspect, DEMs are very useful for hydrological analysis. Slope and aspect can then be used to determine direction of surface runoff, and hence flow accumulation for the formation of streams, rivers and lakes. Areas of divergent flow can also give a clear indication of the boundaries of a catchment. Once a flow direction and accumulation matrix has been created, queries can be performed that show contributing or dispersal areas at a certain point. More detail can be added to the model, such as terrain roughness, vegetation types and soil types, which can influence infiltration and evapotranspiration rates, and hence influencing surface flow. One of the main uses of hydrological modeling is in environmental contamination research.
An example of use of layers in a GIS application. In this example, the forest cover layer (light green) is at the bottom, with the topographic layer over it. Next up is the stream layer, then the boundary layer, then the road layer. The order is very important in order to properly display the final result. Note that the pond layer was located just below the stream layer, so that a stream line can be seen overlying one of the ponds.
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.
Geo-statistics is a branch of statistics that deals with field data, spatial data with a continuous index. It provides methods to model spatial correlation, and predict values at arbitrary locations (interpolation).
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.
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 software 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 1,000. 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.
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.
Coupled with GIS, multi-criteria decision analysis methods support decision-makers in analysing a set of alternative spatial solutions, such as the most likely ecological habitat for restoration, against multiple criteria, such as vegetation cover or roads. MCDA uses decision rules to aggregate the criteria, which allows the alternative solutions to be ranked or prioritized. GIS MCDA may reduce costs and time involved in identifying potential restoration sites.
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 GIS but production of 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.
The digital elevation model, consisting of surface elevations recorded on a 30-meter horizontal grid, shows high elevations as white and low elevation as black.
The accompanying Landsat Thematic Mapper image shows a false-color infrared image looking down at the same area in 30-meter pixels, or picture elements, for the same coordinate points, pixel by pixel, as the elevation information.
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. These tools can come in the form of add-ins to existing wider-purpose software such as Microsoft Excel.
GIS or spatial data mining is the application of data mining methods to spatial data. Data mining, which is the partially automated search for hidden patterns in large databases, offers great potential benefits for applied GIS-based decision making. Typical applications include environmental monitoring. A characteristic of such applications is that spatial correlation between data measurements require the use of specialized algorithms for more efficient data analysis.
In recent years there has been an explosion of mapping applications on the web such as Google Maps and Bing Maps. These websites give the public access to huge amounts of geographic data.
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. Web mapping has also uncovered the potential of crowdsourcing geodata in projects like OpenStreetMap, which is a collaborative project to create a free editable map of the world.
Adding the dimension of time
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 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.