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Geographic Information System: a Revolution by Stealth



One of the most exciting developments in GIS is its spreading engagement with people around the world – a phenomenon known as “crowd-sourcing”.


November 1, 2011

A quiet revolution is sweeping the world of development; a revolution in plain sight yet often obscured by ubiquitous familiarity. It goes by the initials GIS or geographic information system.

What is GIS?

The importance of GIS lies in its ability to combine a wide variety of data to create a spatial picture that is far more useful than the old system of linear comparison | Reza Firuzabadi, Senior Information Officer, Sustainable Development Network, The World Bank

GIS is a system designed to capture, store, manipulate, analyze, manage, and present all types of geographically referenced data. The term describes any information system that integrates, stores, edits, analyzes, shares and displays geographic information for decision making.

When you flip on a light switch in your house - most probably a GIS helped make sure the electricity was there; when you drive your car - a GIS managed the lights along the way, and if you look at a map on the internet - a GIS helped make it possible.

“The importance of GIS lies in its ability to combine a wide variety of data to create a spatial picture that is far more useful than the old system of linear comparison,” says Reza Firuzabadi, Senior Information Officer in the World Bank’s Sustainable Development Network’s Information Systems team.

GIS at the World Bank

The World Bank has used GIS operationally since the early 1980s when a research unit in its East Asia region’s Spatial Analysis Lab -- acquired sophisticated computers to process geospatial data for environmental and infrastructural mapping. The value of GIS in poverty reduction has been thoroughly explored in the World Development Report 2009, entitled Reshaping Economic Geography.

The Bank’s use of GIS has spread substantially, to the extent that several World Bank sectors and networks are now using and developing GIS tools for a wide range of applications.

The Bank, in partnership with AidData geo-coded and mapped more than 30,000 geographic locations for more than 2,500 Bank-financed projects worldwide under its Mapping for Results initiative. All new World Bank projects are now geo-referenced to ensure that development planners can track and deliver resources more efficiently and effectively and avoid work duplication. Since the data is publicly accessible, it also empowers citizens to follow the progress of projects and service delivery in their countries.

The World Bank’s Development Research Group uses GIS methods extensively to carry out policy research, and provide support to Bank operations. In environmental policy research, for instance, it uses GIS to calculate the probable effects of climate change, with overlay mapping techniques to track the spatial distribution of potential environmental impacts, says Environmental Specialist Brian Blankespoor, who works in the Group’s GIS lab.

Disaster risk reduction is also a vital function of GIS. That is why the World Bank has established a permanent Disaster Risk Management division with a specialist GIS team, the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR). Stuart Gill, head of the GFDRR lab, says geospatial risk assessments are central to the World Bank’s disaster reduction strategy. The Bank does not engage in disaster response, but focuses on risk reduction and, in the event of a disaster, on assisting humanitarian agencies and post-disaster reconstruction (as in Haiti, after the January 2010 earthquake). The GFDRR has identified 31 “priority” countries deemed most at risk of disasters, such as climate change-related events. The GFDRR lab has been able to greatly magnify its impact by inviting specialists in GIS and related fields to help map risk profiles in countries such as Haiti, under the Open Data for Resilience program.

The World Bank Climate Change Knowledge Portal offers quick and readily accessible climate and climate-related data. The site also includes a mapping visualization tool displaying key climate variables data as well as a screening tool for assessing development projects for sensitivities to climate change.

The Future of GIS at the World Bank

Jack Dangermond, President, ESRIAbout one million users of GIS worldwide – from just about every background, in developing and developed countries -- building little postage stamps of geography into a digital form and beginning to share them | Jack Dangermond, President, Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI)

Cost was a major inhibitor in the use of GIS in the early years. But as the technologies have become more affordable and commercially available its use has expanded exponentially. Many proprietary technologies that used to be prohibitively expensive are now open-source.

Professional mapping is becoming an indispensable part of World Bank operations. The World Bank has opened much of its data banks to public access, as reported in the July 2, 2011 New York Times article: “World Bank Is Opening Its Treasure Chest of Data”. It is crucial for the sustainability of GIS that its data not be lost, but becomes permanently incorporated into national and international operations – as Spatial Data Infrastructure.

The World Bank and the European Space Agency began a partnership last year to incorporate satellite data -- under the rubric Earth Observation for Development -- into the Bank's lending operations, across all Sustainable Development Network sectors. The Bank’s relationship with the United Nations, too, is likely to broaden, since the UN’s Statistics Division set up its own Geospatial Information division.

Such collaborations are bound to grow, as more and more organizations tap into the power of GIS.

Creating a Kind of Virtual Earth

Globally, there is a convergence of governments, international agencies and commercial enterprises around GIS, as development work becomes more collaborative, driven by the rising urgency of global issues such as climate change that are too big and complex for any one agency to handle.

One of the most exciting developments in GIS is its spreading engagement with people around the world – a phenomenon known as “crowd-sourcing”.

Commercial enterprises, too, are engaged with the research and marketing of geospatial technology. A pioneering entity in this field is California-based Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), which has a long association with the World Bank. ESRI’s president, Jack Dangermond says his institute alone has built a global network of “about one million users of GIS worldwide – from just about every background, in developing and developed countries -- building little postage stamps of geography into a digital form and beginning to share them”. The vision, he says, is to create “a kind of virtual Earth”.

Dangermond says crowd-sourced information will not replace authoritative source measurements, but will be one of the many layers of data that informs and enriches GIS.

“I would assert that GIS is becoming a kind of mainstream technology – not unlike financial accounting systems which through their evolution in the last 50 years led to the foundation of globalization. Just as multinational companies these days can monitor their operations all around the world (through standardized accounting), with geographic information we can get both top-down views and also very specific views of operations.”

Faster computers, the emergence of cloud computing and mobile Internet access have brought social networking into the GIS picture.

“A new platform has arrived. It is very valuable for sharing information, for easily bringing information together and making maps, and it leverages this whole new wave of technologies that are evolving,” he said. However, technology alone is not enough, Dangermond says. To make GIS truly effective will require leadership, vision, a sense of collaboration and understanding of the way to use the technology.

“Is this vision really going to happen? I think, yes, this will emerge. Like the Internet, it will be pervasive, become a kind of geospatial content that lives on the web. And it will be kind of exciting.”

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Last updated: 2011-11-01



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