Getting the GISt of Geography

photo of Captain Kirk from Star Trek

Understanding space and time...

News out of PBN the other day is that a new GIS is coming to Oahu. A new what? A GIS! Or more specifically, a Geographic Information System. As a former geography graduate student, both at GMU and UH, I love it when my former discipline makes headlines! Geography is not just about knowing where things are — it’s about understanding relationships between different phenomena, both cultural and physical, across space and time. Lest I start sounding like Captain Kirk, I’ll cut the academic jargon here and just say that geography is about a lot more than just maps. Geography lets us understand how culture and the physical world shape each other through time and from place to place.

“Sounds great, Mike, but what’s this doing on a real estate blog?” Great question and let me first explain what a GIS actually is. A GIS is a spatial database or a complex piece of software that lets you input different types of data (ex. soil maps, beach positions, elevation, water surface temperature, coral presence, sewer lines and building density) in a location and see where there might be connections between data that may not initially be so apparent. (side note: I was the first intern in Hawaii for ESRI, the world’s top GIS software producer!)

For example, let’s say you were interested in building a new shopping center near the beach. Is this a good idea? You’d want to get your hands on digital data for zoning, transportation lines so people could walk there, public infrastructure maps, etc. You’d also want to overlay this data with local spatial data on soil analysis and coastal erosion so you could be sure your new mall wouldn’t be swallowed up by the ocean in 20 years. All of this data — economic and physical — would go into your GIS to help you make the proper decision about your project. See how that works? It’s the ability to place different data ‘on top of each other’ in ‘mapping space’ that produces all kinds of useful information. Geography in action!

GIS and Hawaii

image of globe with Hawaii starredThe new GIS mentioned in the PBN article doesn’t give too many details on the upcoming project other than to say it will be available on mobile phones and show information useful to visitors, such as tsunami evacuation areas, local beach data and where to park your car. So we don’t know how robust the end product will actually be, but the fact that the technology is being embraced at all is very promising.

Let’s look at at few other ways that GIS is used here in the islands:

Hawaii State GIS — While the aforementioned project is new, GIS usage here is not. This site is home to all types of spatial data, from solar radiation to land ownership as well as census data.

Hawaii Coastal Use Mapping Project — GIS is an incredibly useful tool for those in the natural sciences, especially in the coastal and marine fields.

Coastal Erosion and Shoreline Analysis — I actually worked on parts of this project back in my former geographer days. GIS allows for the analysis of shoreline change which informs both government as well as individual homeowners in policy and relocation decisions.

The uses of GIS are endless. Bringing it back to real estate, here are just a few ideas:

  • As I just mentioned, using coastal erosion data to decide whether to buy that oceanfront house or not
  • Understanding watersheds and soil analysis if you’re planning on purchasing a home back in a valley
  • Using GIS to monitor development patterns over time of a neighborhood you’re considering moving into
  • Plotting out home value changes over the past decade – how’s your area doing?
  • Mapping out flood layers and flood zones to estimate risk to natural hazards
  • Plot census data for your area — what changes to you notice in both economic and cultural factors?

What other uses of GIS in real estate can you think of?