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What can GIS give you besides a great map

If you think GIS is only to make maps you may also think that Microsoft only sells Word.

Via apps Geographic Information System (GIS) is now more widely applied and accessible than ever.  From Waze to the UPS tracker, from Uber to DoorDash, a big part of the convenience of our modern lifestyle is realized by GIS applications. Fueled by fast-evolving web technology, GIS benefits a massive user base, many of whom don’t know what GIS is.

Developing a full-fledged GIS solution is complicated and requires niche expertise, but to take advantage of some GIS apps you don’t need a degree.  If you are digitally savvy, you can build or use GIS apps to tell captivating stories, perform analysis, and build virtual communities. Unlike the traditional GIS technology that relies on specialists to model issues and make sense of data, today GIS has evolved and expanded to reach a much wider audience and serve a variety of purposes. 

GIS helps you tell stories. Whether it’s to rally public attention around environmental issues, solicit feedback on community development or pitch an idea to your boss, an engaging webpage goes a long way. And ArcGIS StoryMaps are holding people as never before.

ArcGIS StoryMaps is an app that can tell your compelling story visually and interactively. Within minutes you can build a sleek webpage with rich media content - video, charts, even an interactive map - all in one webpage with zero coding.  Esri Canada’s own CEO Alex Miller shared the story of his family’s emigration from Ireland to Canada using StoryMaps.

Figure 1 Story map of the Joseph Miller Family

Many institutions are using it to tell stories too. Cities and schools engage a wide audience using this easy, multi-media app. Durham Region created a story map to communicate the strategic plan to its residents. Educational and research organizations use StoryMaps to preserve knowledge and teach students new ways to convey their research findings.  

GIS helps you gain insights. Imagine you own a food truck in a busy city where there are many construction projects and frequent road closures, but you don’t know when. How do you plan where to open your business each day to avoid them? One way is to check out a road works web map hosted by your local government, like below.

Figure 2 Halifax Road Works Map

This sort of map is helpful for all kinds of local businesses. Store owners can better forecast their revenue due to reduced pedestrian traffic that are the result of road closures. Downtown workers can better plan their commute and parking.

This web application is built using Web AppBuilder for ArcGIS. With no coding needed and no shortage of configurable widgets, Web AppBuilder can render information into insights. Governments and businesses use the application to both communicate externally and enable further analysis. 

Saskatchewan Crop Insurance created the Crop See Date Tool to display different seeding dates across the province, Newfoundland and Labrador created the Take Home Naloxone Kit Locations to reduce the harm of an overdose, and the Yukon government created the Mining and Exploration Activity web app for better environmental monitoring.

GIS helps you build communities. Have you been to a community gathering or work meeting in which maps are used to facilitate conversation? Once everyone sees a map of their location, they’re searching for their house, workplace, commute routes, parks and facilities.

Quite often they realize that their perceived bearings are not aligned with the reality. The proposed bus route is closer/further than people thought. The space for a proposed playground will only accommodate some swings and a slide, there’s no room for a pool. A unified and objective view of where things are, means that every neighbour has the same information. Then the conversation starts.

Via web applications, GIS provides a platform for people to gravitate to, break information silos and think holistically. Some organizations have taken it to a scale that makes it useful internally and externally. It’s called ArcGIS Hub.

The YorkInfo Partnership is a great example. In York Region in Ontario, its nine municipalities, two district school boards and two conservation authorities started a partnership in 1996. They used GIS as a platform where they could create, manage and share data, as well as best practices, amongst each other, efficiently and economically.

Built with ArcGIS Hub, the open data platform invites teamwork and enables multi-directional data sharing, revision, and initiative planning.  Over 90 governments and organizations across Canada have adopted ArcGIS Open Data Hubs to lay out clear priorities and break down information silos with the goal of building stronger communities.

GIS is evolving as fast as other emerging technologies.  Big data analytics, IoT monitoring, UAV technology, 4D (time) simulation are integrated, keeping GIS at the frontier of leading technologies. And exciting as that is, what excites me more is the new and stronger community connections that are enabled by GIS as never before.

I want to work with you to grow the awareness of GIS and expand our community so more people can #see what others can’t. Sharing GIS stories with your non-GIS peers is a terrific way to start! If you have a story on how GIS made a difference in your work, I’d love to hear it! Reach me at

About the Author

Guan Yue is Esri Canada’s Community Builder. She works with a wide variety of communities to learn their evolving needs and help them see the benefits of integrating spatial thinking into a solution. Her journey with GIS started over 10 years ago when she came from China to pursue a master’s degree in Environmental Science at Dalhousie University in Halifax, where she used GIS to map traditional knowledge on urban bird habitats. Guan continued to work with the technology in university and municipal projects, but her career path shifted when she joined a large utility company to do IT implementation and improve business processes. She sees spatial insights as vital to better understanding businesses, organizations and more broadly, our world, yet its value is under recognized across sectors. Guan loves trying different food, going on hikes, exploring art events and reading to her daughter at bedtime.

Profile Photo of Guan Yue