According to Canalys there were approximately 41 million GPS units sold in 2008, and in 2009 the number of GPS enabled cell phones in use had exceeded 27 million. Without even thinking, tens of millions of people access directions and look-up local businesses from these hand-held devices every day. Let's tie this back to our big picture here, GIS. The 24 GPS satellites orbiting earth are constantly broadcasting data about their location and exact time. Your GPS device or phone receives and process the signals from three to four of these satellites to figure out where it is located. Points of interest, addresses (lines or points), and aerial or road data is all stored in a database that is accessed by your device. When you submit data, such as posting a geo-Tweet (a location-based Tweet on Twitter), checking in on Foursquare, or rating a restaurant you are adding data to one or more GIS data sources.
Popular GIS ApplicationsBefore consumer GPS devices were so prevalent we used to have to go to a computer and look- up directions, such as with Bing Maps. (Bing Maps is a relatively new service, which grew out of Microsoft Virtual Earth.) Bing Maps has some great features such as oblique imagery (Bird's Eye View), Streaming Video, and Photosynth. Many websites incorporate data from Bing or other GIS sources to provide a limited mapping experience on their own websites (such as seeing all their physical storefronts).
Traditionally desktop GIS has dominated the GIS mindset. People think of ArcMap, MicroStation, or other enterprise-level GIS applications when they think desktop GIS. But the most prevalent desktop GIS application is free, and quiet powerful. With over 400 million total downloads (according to GeoWeb 2008 keynote speech by Michael Jones) Google Earth is by far the most used GIS application in the world. While many people use Google Earth to look for fun things such as a friend's house, crop circles, and other oddities, Google Earth also allows you to add georeferenced images, view parcel data, and find routes.
Georeferencing PhotosOne of my favorite things to do is georeference pictures. Georeferencing is the process of giving an image a "place". Using Panoramio this is very easy to do for Google Earth. This is really fun if you took a road trip, or any trip. Going a step beyond that is Photosynth (by Microsoft), where you can not only georeference an image, but also "stitch" images together. There is another free application that provides users a globe, ArcGIS Explorer from ESRI. ESRI, known for its desktop and server GIS applications, has released a free viewer that includes an updated user interface and some great features; I like to think of it as Google Earth on steroids. There are several add-ins you can use to see Bing imagery, Open Street Maps roads, geotweets, and more. Its built-in features include deciding routing, making notes/annotations, and creating presentations.
Even before the average computer user was using GIS on a near daily basis, everyone has benefited from it. The government uses GIS to decide voting districts, analyze demographics, and even time street lights. The real power of GIS is that it is more than a map, it is a map that can show us exactly what we want to see.
How has GIS become such an integral part of society almost seamlessly? Google, Garmin, and others were not creating products with "Hey, the mass public needs GIS" in mind, no, they were meeting needs. Humans think geographically. "Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How" those are the five Ws right? Place is extremely important to people. When studying how human populations have acted over the past millennia it is easy to see how geography dictated culture. Today, place still dictates much of our lives: property values, crime rates, education standards, these can all be classified by place. It is interesting to see when a technology has become so ingrained in a society that people don't consider it when they use it, they just use it; like with cell phones, cars, microwaves, etc. (that list could be very long). Personally, as someone who loves maps and loves computers and works in the GIS field I think it is great that an eight-year-old has the ability to look-up their friends address and show their parents exactly where they are going, or for family members to be able to see pictures of those they love where they were taken, and so many more cool things that GIS allows us to do without thinking.
Kyle Souza is a GIS professional from Texas. He operates TractBuilder and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.