What is GIS?

What is GIS? 

GIS stands for Geographic Information Systems.  The geographic in GIS refers to all information that relates to something spatial or geographic.  We all know what geography means because we use it our everyday lives.  We use Google earth to display tourism information worldwide; we use Google or Bing Maps, our in-car GPS, our mobile phones to get driving directions.  Likewise, location is what connects the Bad River Reservation and the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians to the earth, natural resources, history, beauty, cultural wisdom, governance, and community. 

The unsung hero of GIS is the information systems piece.  These are the under-the-hood aspects of data, programs, and management systems that make geographic data accessible to you.  To manage all of the Bad River Tribe’s information linked to geographic locations, we need a management system, which is a critical piece to ensuring data are secureupdated, and accessible.  Stanford University Computer Science professor, Jennifer Widom defines the database management system as an “efficient, reliable, convenient, and safe multi-user  storage of and access to massive amounts of persistent data.”  And the Bad River Tribe has a massive amount of data to manage!

Why Use GIS? 

The bullets list above still only touches some main GIS applications for tribal governments and Bad River in particular.  One main obstacle to gaining tribal-wide support for GIS is to show how such mapping tools are a CRITICAL part to tribal government.  Maintaining GIS support consistently for each department is critical because tribal government for four reasons. 

  1. GIS Software is Cost-Effective.  Thanks to the Enterprise License Agreement between the Bureau of Indians Affairs and a huge mapping software company (ESRI), all federally-recognized tribes have easy access to using ESRI software.  Trained staff are an asset for each department that want to use GIS and maps.
  2. GIS SAVES MONEY.  Consider how much time, money, and effort that goes into researching and proposing a new development for a building or house.  Surveyors, planners, utility works, engineers, and natural resource managers are all involved at different stages in a planning project to make decisions.  Each stakeholder develops their own plan, map, or report to present to the Tribal Council for approval.  Now consider if all these same stakeholders in the same room viewing a map with information on all the cultural, economic, and natural resources available. This interactive planning tool has the potential to save the Bad River Tribe hours, weeks, or even months of lost planning effort by answering questions about resources interactively with a map resource created using GIS.
  3. GIS Software is a Database Management Solution for the ENTIRE Tribe:  Other tribes actually use this same software as the tribe’s central database.  Each department could theoretically manage all their data in one central location that allows each department to map out certain datasets.
  4. GIS is a Communication Tool.  Maps are excellent presentation and communication tools that may emphasize a problem to a larger audience better than an extremely well-written report (that’s a bit lengthy); the map in turn may garner more support for a cause.  

Aren’t they just maps?

The short answer: yes.  The long answer: the map you view is a screen shot of the underlying data.  Maps are created from layering many themes atop each other to tell a story of how the themes relate.  A theme could be lease locations on the Bad River Reservation, or the number of sturgeon spawning in the Bad River.  As an actual example in the Bad River Reservation, the Tribal Council wants to know where to develop more land and lease out new properties for housing.  This question is inherently spatial, meaning that the location of something as it relates to something else will be the answer.  A possible solution might involve selecting areas of land that have no current leases, building structures, roads, streams or wetlands, within the Bad River Reservation boundary, which have a specific land ownership designation as owned by the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians.  The resulting locations give engineers a starting point for assessing the land for buildings.

Who Uses GIS?

For those who forgot to study up, GIS stands for Geographic Information Systems.  This is a technology—a tool—that manages, analyzes, and displays information linked to real-world locations.  GIS is used mainly to manage the data and information to display on maps such as stream locations, land parcel ownership, utility lines, forest stands, and burial sites.  Those who use GIS include:

  • Anyone using Bing, Google Maps, MapQuest…etc to search for locations online or request driving directions;
  • Tribal Members viewing public aerial imagery on Google Earth for historical changes of a landscape or for selecting ideal hunting areas;
  • Health Care Providers and Air Quality Specialists plotting air quality risks (like mercury or particulate matter) to alert the public to health alerts;
  • Emergency Managers assessing natural disaster potential by searching for data on the internet and providing on maps for flood potential, snow warnings, fire hazards;
  • Land Surveyors or Realty Staff using Global Positional System (GPS) and GIS tools to create legal descriptions and plot lease boundaries
  • Roads Managers marking locations of center lines and noting needed improvements for particular road sections;
  • Utility Workers and Engineers, like those in the Indian Health Services, marking utility poles or water lines and determining which houses are connected to the grid;
  • Well Inspectors recording locations and conditions of culverts and well locations to check for updates;
  • Wildlife Biologists  tracking movements of wolves, deer, and other animals to map out territories and estimate populations sizes;
  • Cultural AnthropologistsArchaeologists, and Tribal Preservation Historic Officers using Ground-Penetrating Radar (GPR) to determine whether unmarked burials are present near streambeds or in existing cemeteries, which can be mapped with GIS to show tribal members;
  • Hydrologists and Water Resource Experts monitoring water quality in streams and lakes to model where certain pollutants flow downstream to assess where tribal wild rice harvest areas might be affected;
  • Foresters inventorying locations of tree species or harvest status, or use aerial imagery to classify land cover types and acreage available for harvest;
  • Business Managers searching for areas to site the next casino that serve a specified population range and need maps for grant applications;
  • Tribal Planners locating parcels or make new building recommendations that are closest to utilities, existing roads and communities, and avoid impacts to water resources.

More on GIS in the World

If you want to learn more about how GIS is re-shaping the world, for natural resources management, governmental planning, community and land-use planning, and terrain and vegetation analysis, please visit these websites:

  • The software company Environmental Systems Research Institute (Esri), makers of the internationally well-known ArcGIS mapping programs, have many visually appealing and descriptive Overview of GIS, how it’s applied and developed in the real world. 
  • Penn State’s Public Broadcasting Station’s Geospatial Revolution Series bring an entertaining perspective to how geospatial technologies have become a fundamental tool in our lives.
  • The Wisconsin State Cartographer’s website keeps us current on Wisconsin geospatial events, explanations, PLSS descriptions, and resources for jobs in surveying, GIS, and engineering.
  • Visit the US Geological Survey’s National Map to access nation-wide maps of water, government boundaries, aerial imagery, roads, and many other themes. 
  • Learn about how different geographic coordinate systems look with different projections using Kartograph’s Map Projections.

Interested in Making Your Own Maps?

Interested in learning how to make maps? You can download trial versions of Esri’s ArcGIS programs or check out Free and Open Source software.