What is GIS?

A geographic information system is like any other system; it holds facts about something of interest, such as a business, a hiking club, or your finances. However, a GIS also has a geographic component to it.

Google Maps is a good example of a GIS. Maps has facts about streets from all over their world – their names, their widths, the cities in which they reside, and in some cases their speed limits. But if all that Google Maps could tell you about Granville Street is that it resides in Vancouver, BC, Canada, it wouldn’t be too useful.

What makes Google Maps truly a geographic information system is the ability of Maps to process these facts and then provide some useful information with a geographic component – like how to get to my mother-in-law’s home in time for Sunday dinner (Figure 1).


Figure 1: Google Map directions from Vancouver To Abbotsford

A GIS usually presents its output as a map, but it doesn’t have to be a map. To get from one location to another by bus, all I need are the directions. Here are some directions from downtown Vancouver to Langara College, courtesy of the Translink site (Figure 2).


Figure 2: Translink directions from downtown Vancouver to Langara College

Why GIS?

Answering the question above, “What is a GIS” should provide clues to answer a second question, “Why spend time creating a GIS”? Wherever you are right now as you read this, you are somewhere on the earth. When you finish reading, you will go somewhere else on the earth. When you finish going there, you will go to your home on the earth. Do you get the hint?

Spatial is special because almost everything that we do in life has a geographical component. Understanding the forces and rules of geography can help us in many ways in everything from taking preventative measures against flood to choosing the best location for your local house of worship.

Perhaps you remember your geography class in school as not too exciting? At one time there was not much that you could do with geography, it was just there. However, with the advent of computers and massive amounts of geographic datasets, GIS is an exciting place to be.

GIS is becoming big business. See our GIS and Employment page for details.

How GIS?

Having determined what GIS and why it is important, the next question to answer is “How do I do GIS”?

You do GIS with software, of course, but which software? Up until the present time, GIS software, as represented by companies such as ESRI, Pitney Bowes, and Autodesk, cost thousands of dollars. The individual or small business cannot afford such software.

All of that changed with the release of version 2 of QGIS in 2013. QGIS is first class GIS software and it is free. The Open Source model upon which QGIS is built provides means that a wide range of organizations and individuals contribute to its development. QGIS just keeps getting better and better!

Now that you know what a GIS is and why it is important, go and sign up for our QGIS courses!