How the Growing Use of Geographic Information Systems Can Benefit Society

Satellite-based images can be a critical aspect of geographic information systems.
Satellite-based images can be a critical aspect of geographic information systems.

By Rabindra P. Osti

Driven by the digital revolution and fast-growing remote sensing technologies, GIS is re-engineering our view of the world and solving problems in unexpected ways.

Significant data collection problems exist in most developing countries, chief of which are unavailability, obsolescence, unreliability/inaccuracy, and inconsistency. Meanwhile, critical data for development planning, e.g., political boundaries, topographic maps, dry weather flow mainly of transboundary rivers, etc., tend to be restricted.

Mapping and data production has traditionally relied on analog methods. Any error in storing and extraction of analog data would have cascading effects in development planning. Duplication in data collection is also prevalent due to lack of common data storage and handling platforms as well as poor data exchange, reuse, and recycle provisions. 

These challenges can be overcome with the use of geospatial data, which is growing fast in development planning and crisis management. It helps simplify complex data required in decision making, maintain transparency, and enhance communication. However, many countries in the Asia and Pacific region do not have the capability to harness these technologies mainly because of lack of awareness and understanding.

Geographic information systems (GIS), which are computer systems that capture, store, and display data related to geographic positions, have become a powerful tool. With the emergence of remote sensing technologies including satellite-based observations, and global positioning systems, creating geospatial data has never been easier.

Geographic information systems can be used in disaster surveillance (e.g., for coronavirus disease), hazard forecasting and warning systems, and asset management. They are also used for spatial planning on river basins. A project atlas with project plan, location, and components generated through geographic information systems can reveal more than traditional methods. It also allows an all-in-one project communication platform/channel to be established.

Many geographic information system tools have spatial and volumetric analysis capabilities, which help replace conventional spatial analysis like watershed modelling, optimize investments, and facilitate disaster risk as well as impact assessments.

In addition, development benchmarking and project performance evaluation over the course of time can be easily done in a geographic information systems platform. Land use changes, demographic changes, infrastructure developments over time, and reduction in disaster impact can be compared using time-based geospatial data.

In today’s highly transformed world, geographic information system applications save costs.

Many research institutes, individual researchers, and some international agencies, are producing georeferenced technical (e.g., land use), environmental, climatic, and socio-economic data (e.g., demographic), based on analog or digital data. Most are sourced from satellite-based observations, helping to overcome conventional challenges in acquiring regional and transboundary data. Many of them have also been calibrated and validated for use on “as is” basis without need for any complex skill and mostly free of charge.

Remote sensing data based on specific needs and requirements are also being provided commercially by many space agencies and their affiliates. The accuracy of these data depends on several factors. Many government planners and practitioners are not aware of these data sources or cannot use them because of the lack of basic skills.

As a result, time and other resources used for data collection and evaluation still account for a large portion of investments. Despite these advantages, investments aimed at collecting and creating geospatial data and developing the corresponding basic skills have not yet been prioritized in development practice.

High resolution geospatial data covering most sectors—transportation, agriculture, energy, urban, socio-economic (mostly census), water, and environment—are available from reliable, third-party sources. Global land use data are both freely and commercially available at different spatial resolutions and at different years, making it easy to compare and use for spatial planning, which was almost impossible in the past.

Although not always the most recent, geocoded, or easy to geocode census data at different levels of administrative boundaries are also available for many countries. Administrative/political boundaries at local levels are also available and some are updated with attributes including census data.

A global disaster database, global dam and reservoir data, ecological regions, world conservation sites, indigenous people’s locations, and climate change data, both historical and projected, with detail attributes are also accessible in geocoded forms provided by many governments, researchers, and international organizations. Only basic computer skills are needed to make use of these ready-made data. 

Geographic information system applications save costs from multiple single-sector mapping, data storage, filing, and other data interpretation and analytical tasks. Although geographic information system technology itself is complex, its application is not, but this is usually misunderstood.

The convergence of geographic information system technology with cloud computing has had a profound impact on the ability to leverage spatial applications and information, including disaster and pandemic response almost on a real time basis. Technologies are evolving, and data provided are being corrected as technologies further improve. Likewise, sophisticated technologies and geographic information systems services are still expensive, but we can start by using freely available tools and data.

Large-scale development planning, such as at the river basin scale, and any individual project conceptualization, does not need to be delayed simply because of lack of baseline data, as long as third-party data used do not create conflicts of interest. The vast but not fully utilized spatial data are very useful in natural capital accounting to support green growth and quality development in the Asia and Pacific region.

Developing countries in Asia should prioritize the use of these technologies in their development planning, or else they would not be able to attain higher levels of development in the digital age. A small investment in data collection, geocoding, storage, and application of geographic information systems can save resources, and secure higher quality decision-making.