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GIS - how it's saving the world

Nanet Pagsanjan | July 2022

As we wade through the depressing headlines about war, pandemics, shootings and natural disasters, here’s a story that’ll brighten your day about how GIS, or geographical information systems, is saving our planet.

Broadly referred to as the “science of where”, GIS can include maps, GIS data, or GIS software and can be applied to a range of issues that monitor changes, identify the problems, forecast the future, analyse trends, manage and respond to events and help set priorities. 

GIS is also associated with technological advances including mapping software, gadgetry and apps and their combined application to conservation, sustainability, protecting the environment, and pollution, just to name a few.

The internet is full of blogs and articles of how GIS is saving the world, sometimes one species at a time such as this story about the Bat Conservation International (BCI) and how it's protecting the homes of bats in New Mexico to help prevent the animal’s extinction.

Now, bats get a bad rap for being smelly disease-ridden creatures that suck on human blood (thanks to those vampire movies!) and some would probably say “So what? They’re just bats”, but for anyone who’s ever tried paddle boarding, you know that any shift in balance on that board and you can get dangerously close to falling into the drink.

Nature is similar in her response. Any change in an ecosystem’s balance can have dire consequences because species are connected and the decimation of one will impact another.

Let’s say bats disappeared off the face of the planet. Because they aren’t there to eat what they usually eat, whatever flying stinging insect pests they may have eaten would proliferate because the natural enemy isn’t there to keep the population in check.

This is played out in real life with the dreaded cane toads introduced into the Queensland sugar cane fields in 1935 to combat cane beetles. All indicators now point to an unimpeded march towards Western Australia, where in a few years they'll continue to cause local extinction of native species because the cane toad doesn’t have any specific predators or diseases to control their population.

So, in short, if bats were to disappear, you can say hello to more flying biting insects.

You can also apply this in reverse. That is, whatever fed on those bats would then have to find something else to feed on and if they don’t, then they will likely become extinct themselves and the cycle continues.

Apply. Rinse. Repeat.

The good news is BCI is fighting to preserve bat habitats in New Mexico and they're using GIS through the application of Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) receivers to ensure accuracy behind the mapping of the nesting areas. The field teams used GNSS receivers in conjunction with software including ArcGIS Collector and ArcGIS Survey123 which helped capture the data and digitise the locations. GIS and this work now give BCI an active management system where they can monitor and protect these bats’ environment allowing them to flourish undisturbed.

Another example of GIS saving the world is this one about an oil spill in Huntington Beach in Southern California. In early October 2021 a pipeline connected to an offshore oil platform failed causing thousands and thousands of litres of crude oil to flood the coastal area, coating the beaches, wetlands and its creatures in the dark liquid.

Oil removal processes were deployed, but authorities weren’t clear on where they needed to send the resources to begin clean up, but they knew they had to act quickly to limit the damage.

A not-for-profit organisation committed to protecting the world’s oceans, Surfrider Foundation enlisted the help of 10,000 volunteers.

Now, I don’t know about you, but trying to coordinate 10,000 well-meaning people sounds like a lesson in frustration. I mean, how would this work and how could 10,000 people be used to help the clean up? Turns out they weren’t used to actually physically clean up, but were instead asked to indicate where the oil spill was impacting.

The clever people in Surfrider Foundation asked these volunteers to pinpoint the worst of the oil spill. But how would this happen? By phone call? By Facebook? Perhaps by SMS? In addition, who would monitor and manage these messages and then forward that information to the appropriate authorities?

GIS was the answer! Or rather, GIS software in the form of an online web app. 

Volunteers were asked to use the Surfrider Tar Ball Reporting app, an online resource built using GIS mapping technology where images of the environmental damage could be added and drop pins applied to indicate locations of the oil spill. As the information was shared or accessed, the clean-up could be deployed strategically, with a focus on the most affected areas first. This information was shared with responders so they knew exactly where they needed to go to help clean up injured wildlife.

The GIS app effectively harnessed the collective efforts of the community, and efficiently collated the important data.

Another example of GIS saving our planet is in this blog about re-purposing office buildings in a post pandemic world. As our way of working shifts increasingly from that of a traditional office space to working from home, high office vacancy rates are being experienced in the real estate market.

Savvy office space owners have started to explore how to use the spaces for other things and repurpose them so they’re not sitting there doing nothing.

With the help of GIS, these owners conducted research using the science of where to provide a platform to analyse the demographics and ‘economic patterns’ and start mapping the indoor spaces and consider their productive prospects. This work included creating digital twins (by combining building information modelling (BIM) technology) of the space so teams could see how efficiencies might be designed without lifting a paint brush or demolishing a single wall.

In some instances, office spaces were turned into much needed residential dwellings.


So, we’ve spoken about GIS being used towards preservation of a species, cleaning up environmental disasters and re-purposing to facilitate sustainability.

What’s next? What about a mobile app created with ArcGIS AppStudio designed to ultimately make 16,000 lessons available to 4000 development workers in impoverished nations across the world so they can learn how to help communities on the ground?

By using ArcGIS AppStudio as a low-code platform a new app was created to host these lessons. This is probably one of the best examples of how GIS is saving the world, literally—it’s saving lives by empowering workers on the ground in changing lives. The lessons range from water sanitation, hygiene, disease prevention, kitchen gardens, animal husbandry, education for littlies and women’s empowerment.

By also making the lessons digitally available, researchers can look at the GIS data generated to measure how effective the courses are, which areas are using them most and which areas aren’t, which can mean tailoring some of the resources to better meet needs.

Something that traditionally relied on a computer and a USB stick can now use the ubiquitous mobile smart device which uses GIS software to make learnings accessible to those who need it.

As I read that last sentence, I consider the inaccuracy of my statement about GIS saving the world. I take it back—it is in fact the clever people who have the know-how and savvy to use and apply the science of where and the associated technology who are saving the planet.

While I’ve only presented five examples of how GIS is being applied to conservation, sustainability, environmental disasters, and e-learning, the Esri website is full of stories like these. And so is the rest of the internet.

So, when the maudlin and hopeless headlines start to impact your usually optimistic demeanour, do a search and read some of these truly amazing stories demonstrating how good continues to thrive in this world and with the help of GIS, is saving our planet.

You’ll be pleased you did.