Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Gist of GIS

I went to a session on Geographic Information Systems, or GIS, this morning. (It occurs to me now, the name conveys absolutely nothing about what GIS is and does...but that's the subject of a different blog post). A very knowledgable guy named Dan De Vries ran the workshop. We used a program called Arc Explorer, which is one of about ten different free programs for mapping health data.

It was a useful session, and a powerful technology. But it's funny how quickly things change. Ten or fifteen years ago, the combination of GPS (the technique for getting latitude and longitudinal coordinates of a site) and GIS (taking those coordinates and layering them on a map) was seen as a powerful new tool for epidemiologists. And it still is. But today it's also a powerful tool for fourth graders.

How did something once so specialized become so universally available. As with so much else: Google.

Google Earth is basically a very user-friendly GIS. It may not have the statistical power of EpiInfo or Arc Explorer, but it allows lay people (and when it comes to epidemiology, I include myself in that category) participate in creating maps and layering data on them.

Does this mean epidemiologists will cease to exist? Obviously not. Access to technology is not the same as knowing how to use it correctly and effectively. Which is why I was in that session today --- to nudge myself slightly from the category "lay person" toward the category "expert."