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What Makes A Good GIS Question?

23 Mar

What Makes A Good GIS Question?

Good geographic information system (GIS) questions are not easily created. They can be mysterious to some, unknown to others and cause others to scratch their heads in curiosity. Since most questions posed to GIS are relatively simple – where is this? Most users have their answers satisfied and move on. But a much smaller number of people seek answers to more complex questions that are not immediately available – or even understood.

You will often hear many people who use spatial data speak about the fact that most users don’t want depth, they want to locate things – simply. Fair enough. But this post is about the other group, the one that does seek answers to deeper questions, more complex problems and often unknown (as yet) phenomenon.

Think of it this way. In agriculture, about 15% or less of all farmers grow over 90% of the food on the planet. These are advanced farmers, often deploying the latest agronomic techniques and methods. They known agriculture from many angles, and tend to follow the value chains that emanate from soil – markets, demographics, laws and other external factors. They tend to be advanced and on the edges of new technology and are often considered early adopters. They try new stuff, fail often but in doing so they realize profits through connections to the valued, deeper questions and answers. I would suggest that less than 15% of all GIS users (like advanced farmers) are in their group too.

These advanced GIS users will struggle to implement GIS, bit come at it from different angles including their own systems, cloud applications or simply hiring the whole thing out. This group will ask questions like:

— An Insurance Person – “Where are those areas with flooding in the last 5, 10, 25, 50 and 100 years and how many people and what number of hectares do they involve in each county, province or urban area?

*I want to produce a risk rating map for a city that shows those areas where building type and construction types lead to the fastest rates of spread.”  How many have seen fires in recent years and what is their relationship to fire stations and emergency response in terms of financial loss and loss of life?”

— A Climate Person – “Given the current trend to rises in temperature, what are the risk factors to rural areas within 100km of cities, where greater than 50% of the economy depends on agriculture – rate those factors from highest to lowest.”

“At present rates of precipitation and changing climatic activity, what flood control capabilities do we have to meet potential increases and what levels are we likely to see – and where will they be located?”

— A Small Store Owner – “What is the population demographic for my village or city and the age group distribution?” “Of this group, what level of income is spent on the kinds of objects I am thinking to establish as a business for sale?” “Where do they live and which is the best transportation access to where I might locate my business?”

— A Busker – “How many tourists pass certain locations at which times of day?” “Which train stations have the best locations where people move slowly, and where are these locations?”

— An Urban Planner – “I want to know that numbers and locations of people on slopes greater than 3% but less than 5% on south-facing hills, with 4 km of urban transport systems, who have access to grocery stores within 3 km and drive two cars.”

— A Student – “Where are the cheapest 2 bedroom apartments within 8 km of the college and have access to bus services. These should provide a rating based on €100 increments and ought to consider good and poor coffee shops within walking distance.”

— A Construction Operator – “Which buildings have the highest energy efficiency within the city, where are they located and provide a rating of their performance efficiency. Also include maintenance cost ratings and potential increases in property value based on regional investment in the area for 5 year increments.”

It should become clear that many of the people asking complex questions of GIS are directly tying operational value into the answers that they seek. They ask about more than locations, and often want to know and realize answers to real-world questions with significant human and financial consequences.

Finally, you will not often hear about these complex applications. Sometimes, but not often. Why? In most businesses and larger corporations, these systems are providing answers to business models that they businesses are built upon at the foundation level. These owners tenaciously protect their GIS because they represent intellectual property and enterprise knowledge.

Don’t be fooled, just because you do not see them in practice or know about them, does not mean they do not exists.

15% or less of all GIS are likely driving most of the world’s business and personal activity in some way, shape or form. Just like farming works.

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