GIS and Navigation

Two weeks ago, I was on a bike ride through lovely autumnal Massachusetts. Normally, I have a distinct route that I decide that I am going to follow and I will either write down turn by turn directions or follow on my phone. On this ride, I was using my phone to check where I was, but only now and then. Mostly, I was just exploring and following road signs that appeared to lead somewhere interesting. With this approach, I found myself in a beautiful meadow lined in fluorescent foliage. I decided to head back, when something went wrong — my phone’s battery died.

Obi Wan was right, I was lost

So what does this all have to do with GIS and Navigation? I was stranded. I was without a phone, in a rural part of the state, the sun was setting, and it was getting cold. In this moment, I realized just how much of our lives are reliant on GPS and navigational systems.

Using satellites, cell towers, and internet networks, you can find your position at almost anytime. Your phone can track your location so that it can remind you to pick up milk at the grocery store when you are close. Or GPS can help find lost hikers in the wilderness in need of help. A network of a few dozen satellites in mid-orbit can triangulate your position down to an accuracy of a few feet. Military-grade positioning systems are even more accurate.

Yoda, on the accuracy of today’s GPS

With this intense power and resolution, many technologies use GPS technology. As a result, a massive amount of data is created. Yet, GPS data provides an interesting data visualization challenge. You cannot use a graph that you may use when comparing numeric data. Instead, you must take a more visual approach. This is where GIS comes in.

Hold on Han, I am getting there

GIS, or geographic information systems are a way to integrate and analyze spatial data. So instead of a bar graph, we can create heat maps or track the path of something or even tie spatial data with numerical data (i.e. sampling at different sites). We can then use this information to model systems, or even predict events.

Well, Han, it seems GIS is not for you then

With navigational systems, we must also be wary of privacy concerns. Over 4.5 billion phones are in use in the world — many of which have GPS capabilities. Whoever has the ability to access the data holds an immense power. Can governments use this information to track their citizens? Can GPS data be used as evidence in court? These questions, along with others, pose problems. Thus, strong legislation is required to maintain a safe environment while still allowing the technology to progress for beneficial purposes.

Fear not, C3PO

So with all of the blogs that I have been writing, ethics has come up once again. Yet, as with the other topics, GPS and GIS are great tools for engineers and designers to use to help move technology and humanity forward. What system do you enjoy using that harnesses GPS technologies?