Geographical information systems, or GIS, have been around since at least the eighties, so it might be easy to dismiss them as old hat. But in our current age of data overload, they’re more relevant and useful than ever. For everyone from planners to journalists, ecologists to emergency responders and many, many more, being able to map and understand spatial patterns in data is a valuable skill.
Just a few years ago the entry barriers to learning GIS were high. The industry standard software cost hundreds to thousands of pounds, putting it completely out of easy reach for anyone who didn’t have access through work or university. And even if you did manage to get hold of a copy – legally or otherwise – where would you get hold of any data worth looking at?
Skip forward to 2019 and those barriers have been torn down. Accessible desktop GIS software is available free and open source in the form of QGIS and the many other open source tools and packages out there. Even ESRI, the industry leader, has now made their software more accessible with a reasonably priced home use license.
But even more than than the software, we now have easy access to more datasets than ever before. Thanks to the open data movement, and projects like OpenStreetMap, both private and public sector organisations have realised the value in releasing datasets under open licences to help foster learning and innovation. A great example is the Ordnance Survey’s (OS) open datasets in the UK.
About a decade ago when I was working as a GIS officer in local government, the licensing of OS data was a major limitation on what we could do with our own data. Many of the datasets we created were classed as ‘derived data’, because they had been created in the field by planning officers and the like drawing on to proprietary OS basemaps, which were then digitised using GIS back in the office. This meant we couldn’t share this data with partners or the public except under specific conditions or with convoluted licences, making consultation and collaboration that much harder. I couldn’t have imagined that a few years later we’d have a whole set of OS layers available under an open license, effectively removing the issue of derived data from most applications – and now even the OS’s most detailed and lucrative mapping dataset, the MasterMap is looking forward to at least a partial open data release.
The outcome is that we now have a plethora of data available, and a lot of that data has a spatial component. Not just the base mapping, but all kinds of statistical data linked to postcodes or statistical regions. Sure, we can look at that data in excel and identify some trends, but we can’t truly understand its significance without analysing it spatially.
Add to this the growing amount of remotely sense imagery from satellites and aircraft (the same point about OS data applies to the Environment Agency’s LiDAR elevation data, a jealously guarded asset just a few years ago and now openly available to all). Now anyone can map and monitor environmental change, or locate archaeological features lost for centuries, all from the comfort of their PC.
My point really is that we now have so much data available that the challenge is using it to its full potential. Luckily we also have the powerful tools we need to work with it made equally accessible.
Obviously not all data is free and open, and I don’t think it should be for a while range of reasons (a topic for another post!) But to come back to the title of this post, we now have all the tools and data we could wish for readily available to pick up and use if we have the skills. And if we don’t have the skills, it’s never too late to learn!
Who knows what discoveries are waiting to be made, sitting in those datasets? All you need to do is download a copy of QGIS and get searching…