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What does GIS actually stand for?

What is it, really?

In our world, GIS can be a dirty word.

It has often been misunderstood and shrouded in mystery that made it just another acronym or an overused and under-explained term. Today, geographic information systems encompass a great variety of technologies, networks, and data types making the sheer reach of the technology involved in GIS pretty daunting. Pair that with often-unfriendly user interfaces and those who need it the most are likely to shy away from the entire subject completely.

Why, though?

What’s really exciting though, is the magic that can happen when ordinary information that we’re used to viewing in tables, words, and charts gets attached to a map. For example, I can tell you that income inequality exists between suburban tracts and urban tracts in Philadelphia. But, what if instead I showed you? Look at this map of Philly with different geographic scales showing 2015 Median Household Income. Doesn’t that paint a different picture than my simple words? With the technology pioneered by Esri called a “story map,” you can interact with these geographies, click on them and see multimedia information about people in a way that really brings the story about quality of life to life. Click on the link at the bottom of the page to experience this story.

What’s the value?

This is the value of GIS; it enables us to contextualize important information like never before, making visualizations more effective and powerful so that we have the information to make better decisions. Immediately, GIS allows us to think global by acting locally, placing areas of interest in the context of nearby landmarks and natural resources. This is especially valuable in the context of urban planning and design. By visualizing data related to place, GIS allows us to take the abstract and make it accessible to non-designers. Important stakeholders who have previously been left out of the decision-making process are able to bring critical information like local knowledge, experience, and expertise to the design table with web applications built on top of maps. With web GIS we are able to reduce redundancy in data creation and collection by sharing digitally the information and work that has already been assembled. GIS connects because the Earth is the one thing we all have in common, the one thing that we all are connected to and our greatest shared point of reference.

How does Rodriguez use it?

At Rodriguez we know that geography is the foundation of all problem solving, rarely is a question asked when the word “where” isn’t involved. The systems to manage data about geography (geospatial data) are what enable us to deliver innovative civil designs and the data that supports them. We use GIS at the beginning of every project to give our field team valuable information about what assets and infrastructure they’re going to encounter when going into the field. It allows us to accurately estimate the time needed to complete projects and saves time when the data is brought back to the office because we already have information about the site conditions in GIS. Our whole design team uses web apps to interact with information created in desktop applications by our GIS experts, giving them the power to make informed and sustainable design decisions. We use a framework for design called Geodesign founded on the principle that design doesn’t happen in a blank empty space but in the real world which exists in at least three dimensions.

Did you say Geodesign?

Using GIS doesn’t just mean that we have software to make maps and databases, at Rodriguez these elements are an integral part of the design process which allow us to rapidly iterate and refine concepts in a simulated real world context. Because we use geography to inform everything and to integrate project teams, we say that we are engaged in Geodesign to distinguish our work from the traditional paradigm of infrastructure design and land development. It isn’t about what you do but how you do it and the ability to visualize concepts on a site from the proposal phase means that we are better able to communicate with clients and stakeholders so that projects go more smoothly and retain more of the most valued design elements. One example of a tool we’re using to accomplish this is Esri’s CityEngine which enables GIS data in 3D and uses parametric modeling paired with an interactive interface, smart objects and reports to visualize designs.