The Importance of GIS

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In this essay, David Falk writes about how GIS plays an important role in his career as an Army Officer, in his field as an engineer, and in his civilian life as potential homeowner and resident.

As an Engineer Officer in the Military, I’ve always been told to never forget about the geospatial assets available to me.  This has been drilled into my head, not just overseas while deployed, but stateside in general training environments.  The maps provided have always been helpful, even though I never fully understood what the information on the page was trying to tell me. So far in my career, I’ve luckily always had good Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) and Soldiers who can fill in the knowledge gaps I had, as I graduated with a degree in Criminal Justice and ended up deploying as a Platoon leader in a Horizontal Construction Company.  While deployed, I was tasked with interpreting plans that utilized both my platoon and a Vertical Construction platoon to build structures and level earth capable of supporting those structures for long term.  These projects not only involved the simple installation of prefabricated buildings, but pouring concrete to support important structures.  The maps and the data contained in them were invaluable for doing reconnaissance prior to breaking ground, and doing briefings with higher ups to show our progress without disturbing the work rate of the project site. 

  Once I got home from deployment, I had all but forgotten the need for maps as I returned to a familiar place and transitioned back into my normal routine.  As I had a permanent change of station (PCS) from my duty station in California to Engineer Captain’s Career Course, I was again reminded about how important geospatial data was an Engineer Officer’s job as project management, route reconnaissance, and all other aspects of planning our missions rely on us knowing the ground we are working on.  As I worked my way through the course, I started up the Geological Engineering Master’s degree that was offered through University of Missouri Science and Technology, a few of the courses started deep diving into how these map products were made and how the data being portrayed can be utilized to the fullest.  This past semester I have been given several crash courses on many Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and what they are used for.   A GIS is a system that can store, capture, analyze and manipulate all types of data to meet the needs of the customer or creator of the geospatial products.  Overseas these systems can be used to create maps that show clean and dirty routes, show patterns of where certain elements have taken contact, and even provide general information that includes weather conditions, climate, or logistical data.  

As the classes progressing through the degree continued to teach about GIS and how it pertains to a Geological Engineer’s work in the field, to things like prep work and desk studies, I began to think about how GIS could pertain to everyday civilian life.  How could GIS be utilized to the benefit of the general public?  What data really matters to the public on an everyday basis, or when making a big decision?  During my most recent geospatial class, I was assigned a project to determine how I would map tax collection in GIS.  Doing research for this project that was assigned to me I had to ask myself the question, what information would the general public want as it applies specifically to them?  As it has been said, the only things that are certain in life are death and taxes, but how it is determined how much in taxes I will pay is something that isn’t always made clear.  

As someone who moves every one to four years depending on what the Army asks me to do, buying a house is not something that I have chosen to do when it is more convenient to rent a home for such a short period.  If I decided to go out today and buy a home, how would I decide on where I would want to live?  One main factor would be determining property taxes and how they are assessed.   For this I decided to look at four separate counties to see how they utilized GIS in to portray this data; Stone County and Pulaski County, Missouri, San Joaquin County, California, and Carver County, Minnesota.  All four counties use GIS to show Parcel boundaries, property costs, and other data, but only Stone County Missouri had data on how much in taxes the homeowner paid roughly each year based off of the structures and the quality of land.  

Web GIS solution for Parcel information for Stone County, Missouri.
Web GIS solution for Parcel information for Stone County, Missouri.

I spoke with a GIS Mapper for Stone County in regards for some of the data that is useful for the public and some general misconceptions and what people seem to get wrong.   The intent of the data is to show a potential buyer or current owner how much a home or property is valued at, and how that is split among the structures and quality of land. After talking with the Stone County GIS mapping personnel for about thirty minutes, I realized that the data they provided was much more than just property tax data and would be valuable to anyone interested in purchasing a home or property in this area.  The data is also used to show where the parcel property is located, with rough line drawings showing property size.  Anyone with an old family property that had been long lost would only need the name of the owner or the parcel number to find the location and value by breakdown of the property.  I was informed that this data could even be used for Homeowners Associations to put together mailing lists based off of the area and parcel numbers.  This data can be used for many things besides determining your property taxes, but one of the main things that people get wrong is misusing this data as the basis for neighbor arguments on property lines.  While the GIS data showing property lines is beneficial for a rough guideline for potential buys or current owners, it is not the end all be all when it comes to the property lines.  One of the troubles cartographers have is taking a round earth and putting it on a flat map.  The bigger the area that is attempted to be mapped, the more potential there is for distortion.  Cartographers get around this by using a projection in an attempt to fill in the distortions when creating a map of a specific area but in the case of Stone County’s GIS mapping, their projection is not one hundred percent accurate and is stated to the customer in a prompt before the GIS system can be used.  

In the little time I have spent in the Geological Engineering world, I have not only discovered what GIS is, but that is can be used for many things within my career as an Army Officer, my field as an engineer, and my civilian life as potential homeowner and resident.  Without this program I would never have known that this information is out there for public use to aid in the decision-making process when purchasing a home or property.  How many more people would benefit from this information if they knew it existed on such a public forum? I know one thing is for certain, that before I move to my next duty station, that I will be utilizing GIS and the data each county has accrued before I make any decision on where I choose to live, even it if it is only for a short time. 


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About the Author

David Falk is currently at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, taking classes as part of the Army’s Professional Development Program (PDP) through University of Missouri Science and Technology.  




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