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Understanding the Power of GIS Mapping

By Nicole Helgeson, GIS Research Assistant — Health and Nutrition

GIS, or Geographic Information Systems, is the combination of computer hardware, software, personnel, and procedures that is capable of holding and using data to describe places on the earth’s surface. More importantly, it is a resource to store data from which you can create a map to suit a particular purpose, thereby creating the ability to quickly simplify and display otherwise complex information.

Image: What is GIS?/CDC

It is important to have a basic understanding of GIS and its role in producing maps to understand the large amounts of data that are collected among different projects and initiatives. Where is it? What has changed since…? What patterns exist between…? GIS exists to help us answer and effectively communicate these and other questions.

Thanks to advancements in technology over the years, GIS has undergone significant developments that have improved access to geographic data and has impacted the way we share information. The  international peer-reviewed journal Annals of GIS published an article in 2009 titled Geographic information systems and science: today and tomorrow. The author highlights the increased availability of GIS and how these innovations have supported many industries, including commerce, retail, government, and science. According to the author, this availability, especially Web-based GIS services, has been powerful when making community-based decisions.

An example of how GIS services can inform community-based decision about healthy food environments comes from Northeastern Minnesota. University of Minnesota Extension Health and Nutrition Educator Betsy Johnson has been working with Healthy Northland, a Statewide Health Improvement Program initiative, to map healthy food access in Grand Rapids, for education and action on access issues. (Read more: Taking Stock of Northeastern Minnesota’s Food Environment)

For maps related to Health and Nutrition initiatives, or for more ideas and information, look through the maps on the FD intranet, both interactive and view-only: Research and Evaluation: Maps (sign in required).
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