Geographic Information Systems

Geographic Information Systems

Profound technological advances are transforming the basic nature of information management. As governments implement new information technology, conventional paper records are fast giving way to powerful electronic databases. One type of information management system increasingly being introduced by government organizations is Geographic Information System (GIS) technology.

GIS technology has been developing steadily since the 1960s. Government organizations in Canada have played a pivotal role in that development. Initially, applications were confined to organizing and analyzing information about natural resources. As the technology has matured, become more user-friendly, and costs have decreased, GIS applications have spread. In many regions and countries, a number of provincial and municipal government organizations currently utilize GIS technology.

As government organizations move with increasing speed toward the creation of a predominantly electronic environment, it is not always clear how to facilitate these purposes and rights. New questions and concerns inevitably arise about the protection of privacy, the nature of public access to information under the control of government organizations (government information), and the applicability of many countries’ freedom of information and protection of privacy legislation. The access and privacy issues associated with today’s electronic environment, of which GIS technology is a part, are complex and challenging.

Concept of Geographic Information Systems

GIS definitions tend to be lengthy and technical, as illustrated by the following, relatively straightforward, definition:

“A GIS is a database management system that facilitates the storage, retrieval, manipulation and analysis of spatial and temporal data and its display in the form of maps, tables and figures. The information in a GIS describes entities that have a physical location and extent in some spatial region of interest, while queries involve identifying these entities based on their spatial and temporal attributes and relationships between entities. Geographic data refers to spatial data in terms of their position with respect to a known co-ordinate system, their attributes (which are unrelated to their position) and their spatial inter-relationships with one another.”(Greg Radford, “Watershed Planning Using a GIS to Make Sustainable Decisions,” Plan Canada, July 1993, p. 19)

In other words, a GIS is a computer system specifically designed to store, retrieve, and analyze geographically referenced information.(Raphael Sussman and Brent Hall, “Municipal Planning and GIS,” Plan Canada, July 1993, p. 8) The term “GIS” seems to be difficult to define because it means different things to different people in different disciplines. Often it is defined by its component parts, by the characteristics of applications, or by what the system can do. It is acknowledged that this technology is complex and perhaps new to some readers. However, to have some insight into the potential of a GIS, it is necessary to understand the following characteristics of the technology:

The data input or collection component of a GIS can convert data from existing forms into one that can be used by the system. Geographic information (also known as georeferenced data or geodata) used to be provided exclusively by paper or electronic maps, and tables of attributes. Today, images primarily from aerial photographs and satellites play a significant role in many GIS operations.

Information for any geographic feature has four major components: its geographic position, its attributes, its spatial relationships, and time (i.e., where it is, what it is, what is its relationship to other spatial features, and when did the condition or feature exist). In addition to georeferenced data, a GIS can contain information, often called non-spatial attributes, not represented by locational information.

For a GIS to function, relationships must be expressed in a computer-usable manner. It requires that a common co-ordinate system be used for all data. In practical terms, it is not possible to store all possible information about all possible spatial relationships. Instead, only some of the spatial relationships are explicitly defined in a GIS, and the remainder is either calculated as needed or not available.(Stan Aronoff, Geographic Information Systems: A Management Perspective (Ottawa: WDL Publications, 1989), pp. 162-163)

Conversion of data to a format usable by a GIS was expensive, time-consuming and often difficult. This process is particularly onerous when data are from a wide variety of sources, with different geographic scales and levels of reliability. While new survey methods generate data in digital form, today there still remains an immense backlog of surveys and maps that have to be converted in order to be used in a GIS. Conversion commonly represents 75 per cent or more of the total cost of implementing a GIS.(Aronoff, A Management Perspective, p. 282)

The data management component of a GIS includes the ability to store and retrieve information from the database. The methods used to implement these functions affect how efficiently the system performs operations. The structure of data and the organization of the database place constraints on the way, and the speed with which, data can be retrieved.(John C. Antenucci, Kay Brown, Peter L. Croswell, Michael J. Kevany with Hugh Archer, Geographic Information Systems: A Guide to the Technology (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1991) p. 9)

The analytical capabilities of a GIS may be used to answer questions about what exists now or existed at some point in the past. In addition, they can be used to predict what will happen at a future point in time.(Aronoff, A Management Perspective, p.189)

The output or reporting function of GIS applications vary more in quality, accuracy, and ease of use than in capability. Reports may be in the form of maps, tables, or text in hard or softcopy.(Aronoff, A Management Perspective)

Manipulating and analyzing data referenced to a specific geographic location are key capabilities of a GIS. However, the power of the technology is most apparent when the quantity of data involved is too large to be handled manually or by other information management systems. When there are hundreds or thousands of features to be considered, or hundreds of factors associated with each feature or location, the large volume means it may not be possible to efficiently handle the data using other methods. When the data is input into a GIS, it can be easily manipulated and analyzed in ways that otherwise would be too costly, too time-consuming, or practically impossible to do (Aronoff, A Management Perspective). This is the true appeal of GIS technology. It can make possible what was formerly impossible.


GIS technology is now considered to be entering the information management mainstream.(Leo Gotlieb, “Information Management,” CMA Management Accounting, Vol. 68, No. 2, March 1994, p. 9) Desktop computers have replaced the large mainframes once needed to combine and process data, making GIS products much more affordable and user-friendly. This, combined with various new software and design features, has meant that there has been a great expansion of the number and types of GIS applications in recent years.

In fact, GIS technology has developed so rapidly and extensively over the past two decades that some users now accept it as an essential tool for managing geographic information(Aronoff, A Management Perspective). Supporters believe this technology will fundamentally change the way information flows within and between organizations.

The growing popularity of GIS applications is largely a response to the versatility of the technology. Outlined below is a description of some GIS applications. This discussion is by no means complete or current. Every day new applications are announced. However, the selection is designed to show, in a general manner, the extent and diversity of the technology, rather than to outline specific applications in Ontario.

Land Management/Conservation

The challenge of managing natural resources has been a major impetus in the development of GIS technology.

GIS technology has been widely accepted by public forestry agencies and private lumber companies throughout North America. It is used to assess existing forest resources, to develop harvest schedules and treatment programs, to project future timber supplies, to model the spread of forest fires, and to plan other operational activities. Some of the data necessary for GIS analysis of forest inventories is collected using remote sensing techniques (e.g., satellites).

The capabilities of the technology mean that governments are finding it to be an invaluable tool when developing policy relating to natural resources.

Organizations responsible for international land management and planning are also using GIS technology to support their data collection, analysis and reporting functions. In many cases, it is the power of a GIS that makes these types of projects possible and affordable.

Emergency Services/Disaster Response

GIS technology has proven to be particularly helpful in emergency and disaster planning as well as in co-ordinating response efforts. One highly publicized example was the use of a GIS by Dade County, Florida, to generate maps after the devastation of Hurricane Andrew in 1992. GIS technology is also used in providing 911 emergency services.

Law Enforcement

Increasingly, law enforcement agencies are using GIS technology to help track and prevent crime, and to co-ordinate policing activities, including facilitating multi-jurisdictional efforts.(Ginger M. Juhl, “GIS Facilitates High-Tech War on Drugs,” GIS WORLD, Vol. 6, No. 4, April 1993, p. 60) One GIS application enables users to plot the details of an incident — the time and date of the crime, the weapon, and victim and assailant statistics — against city maps, police beats, and other crime reports. Crime analysts can use the GIS program to play out different scenarios. In addition, by using the GIS with an automatic vehicle locator system to monitor the positions of patrol cars, emergency response is faster.(Tim Miller, “Computers Track the Criminal’s Trail,” American Demographics, January 1994, pp. 13-14)

Municipal/Local Government

One of the areas where there has been significant growth in GIS use is with local governments. As most of the information needed to operate a municipality is georeferenced, the use of GIS technology seems to many to be a logical choice.

Today GIS technology is widely accepted as both a modelling and decision support tool by local governments. Supporters believe that GIS technology can enhance analytical capabilities, produce information with “added value”, and generate the implications of a large number of alternatives quickly. Consequently, GIS technology is seen as helping to facilitate planning and to enhance the decision-making process by providing a rich database.(Zorica D. Budic, “Effectiveness of Geographic Information Systems in Local Planning,” APA Journal, Spring 1994, 60:2, p. 256)

“The technology has now matured to the extent that cost-effective performance can be guaranteed. Rapid advances in computing performance and data storage media have contributed to GIS functionality. These same advances have dramatically reduced the costs of GIS, to the level where appropriate technical solutions are now well within the fiscal means of even the smallest municipalities. The … industry has developed the necessary expertise and experience to assist local governments with GIS implementation. And finally, success breeds success — the word is spreading about successful applications of GIS in local government. This gives prospective users of the technology the confidence to pursue their own applications.”(Ed Kennedy, “The Canadian Geomatics Industry – Partners in the development of local government GIS,” Municipal World, May 1991, p. 3)

Municipalities use GIS technology to support such activities as facilities and property management, property appraisal, election management, permit and license issuing, subdivision planning, transportation analysis and planning, environmental analysis, vehicle routing and dispatching, emergency response, engineering design, water/sewer systems and electrical cabling inventory, and land use planning.(49) In Ontario, most of the larger municipalities such as Toronto, Scarborough, Mississauga, and the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton, as well as a number of smaller municipalities, have GIS applications.

One early and well documented GIS application in Ontario was the County of Oxford Land-Related Information System (LRIS) which provided the county and area municipalities, as well as the County Board of Health and Local Public Utility Commissions, shared access to a database of land-related information that had been integrated from a variety of government sources.

By integrating information from a number of federal, provincial, and local government databases, the system made useful and relevant information that otherwise would have been largely inaccessible and inapplicable. Moreover, this integration helped minimize the development costs of a land-related system for the county and municipalities, and provided a source of up-to-date and accurate data from other government levels.

While the purpose of most local government GIS applications is to make internal operations more efficient and cost-effective, some also focus on public access to government records. Often applications begin as in-house analytical tools and then, as the system matures, public usage and access develops.

As an example, one American jurisdiction developed an easy-to-use public access GIS system which became a prototype for similar efforts in government agencies across the United States. It allowed the public to view and print maps and ownership information using menus to guide them through the system. Permanent changes to the database were blocked by the program. Maps available to the public showed land parcel boundaries, soil types, woods, cleared land, and structure symbols such as residential, commercial, government buildings, mobile homes, schools or fire departments. Detailed photos also allowed users to view properties from overhead.(Jack Dangermond, “Lincoln County, N.C., Opens the Door to Public Access,” American City and County, October 1994, p. 36)

Privacy Concerns

The proliferation of advanced information technology, with databases containing vast quantities of information, is a source of concern to the public. Findings of repeated surveys show that Canadians believe their personal privacy is under siege. People feel vulnerable in the face of invasive and unrestricted information technology and practices. They are concerned that technology will jeopardize or override fundamental human values such as privacy and respect for individuals.

Information technology plays a significant, but not always obvious, part in virtually all aspects of modern life. With this increased role has come the systematic collection of information in an amount and specificity never before possible. As one author noted: “No fact unrecorded, nothing forgotten nor lost, nothing forgiven.”(M.G. Stone and Malcolm Warner, “Politics, Privacy and Computers,” The Political Quarterly 40(1969), p. 260, as cited in Colin J. Bennett, Regulating Privacy: Data Protection and Public Policy in Europe and the United States (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), p. 29) In today’s society, it is clear that information is a valuable commodity and a source of power. It has been noted that the computer gives to those in control of the technology the power to know.(M.G. Stone and Malcolm Warner, “Politics, Privacy and Computers,” The Political Quarterly 40(1969), p. 260, as cited in Colin J. Bennett, Regulating Privacy: Data Protection and Public Policy in Europe and the United States (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), p. 29)

The accumulation and analysis of disparate pieces of information, and the construction of a fairly detailed picture of a person’s life, seem to contribute to the public’s general sense of alienation and to the concern that “someone out there knows something about me.”(Bennett, Regulating Privacy, p. 28)

The creation of an “informational panopticon” makes people’s lives visible to the outside world. It also deprives them of their ability to withdraw themselves from public view.(69) People feel, as more fragments of their lives are recorded and stored in databases, their privacy has been invaded, they have lost control over their personal information, and they are, in essence, under constant surveillance.

Privacy concerns are raised by GIS technology not only because some applications involve data about identifiable individuals (in the commonly understood sense of identification, i.e., data associated with someone’s name), but also because it can create a powerful new identifier — location. The concern is that location can, in essence, become a personal identifier because GIS technology enables the synthesis and analysis of information not possible with other information management systems. It can construct a very detailed picture of an individual’s life, even without the use of their name, just by collecting and analyzing data related to a specific location. It is this potential that is causing many of the privacy concerns associated with GIS technology.

Necessity and Relevancy of Information

With GIS applications, one of the primary privacy concerns is that, as the technology can provide an extremely convenient and cost-effective way to obtain, analyze and display data, more information than is necessary and relevant to lawful, fair and appropriate uses will be collected. A closely related privacy concern is that the immense analytical abilities of GIS technology will create the opportunity for information collected for one purpose to be used for unauthorized purposes.

Most GIS applications involve the creation and utilization of enormous databases. As more information becomes available through GIS technology, organizations may be faced with the temptation to use that information, regardless of whether it is absolutely necessary or relevant to the task at hand. The fact that much of the information used in government GIS applications has been converted from hardcopy seems to exacerbate concerns about the use of information for unrelated and unauthorized purposes.

In the past, information was collected and stored in hardcopy to serve a particular purpose, for example, to register ownership of a property. With the conversion of that information and its inclusion in a GIS, it may be combined with other data and used for purposes not originally envisaged. For example, a municipal GIS may use the same information, in different ways, in its analysis for urban planning, scheduling of road repairs, and routing fire trucks. Without a GIS, some of that information may not have been used for these purposes because the compilation and analysis of the hardcopy information would have been administratively burdensome and impractical. The ease with which data can be combined and analysed with a GIS means that more information may be used to make decisions with the technology than without it. More significantly, it also means that information collected for one purpose may be used for other purposes, generally without the knowledge or consent of the data subject.

Information Integrity

Another informational privacy concern relates to accuracy, completeness and timeliness of the geodata. Digitizing information for inclusion in a GIS is not simple and straightforward. As information is included or excluded to fit with the application, the accuracy and completeness of that information may be compromised. In addition the conversion of existing records, without verifying the accuracy of the information with the data subject, may mean that the quality of the newly digitized information is poor as it is out-of-date or incomplete. Data quality is essential when a GIS is used to make decisions that, potentially, could adversely impact the data subject. Without accurate information, any potential operational efficiencies or benefits, as well as the data subjects’ informational privacy, may be compromised.

Knowledge and Consent

The capability of a GIS to compile, combine, and analyze information in a manner never before possible creates another privacy concern. The “ability to assemble information selectively, or to correlate existing information, can be functionally equivalent to the ability to create new information.”(Bennett, Regulating Privacy, p. 19) By using a GIS an organization can, in essence, create new personal information without the data subject’s knowledge or consent.

Lack of knowledge or consent by the data subject is an issue that comes up repeatedly in discussions of privacy concerns related to GIS technology. One of the first problems is that although a GIS application takes a great deal of time and money to design and implement, generally government organizations do not consult the public about the appropriateness of the technology or how it is going to be used. This means the public does not have the opportunity to become informed or to object to the introduction of this powerful technology. It also means that potential data subjects cannot consent to the use of information relating to them or to withdraw that consent.

When a GIS application utilizes information already in an organization’s custody or control, with no new direct collection or notification, the existence and use of the technology may not be known to the data subject. This creates a number of informational privacy concerns. First, data subjects are unaware of how their information is being used. This lack of awareness means that the process is not open and transparent, and that data subjects are not in the position to make informed decisions. It also means that data subjects may not have access to their records on a GIS and may not have the opportunity to inspect or correct that data.

In addition, it is possible that even if a data subject makes a request for their information, a GIS may not be able to provide the requested information because the application was not designed to pinpoint information on specific individuals. This is an issue with many types of electronic records and one that government organizations should consider in the initial design stage, as the ability of individuals to have access to their own information, regardless of how it is stored, is an essential fair information practice.

Private Sector Involvement

Another privacy concern is raised because:

  • government organizations are increasingly able to purchase personal data collected by the commercial sector and vice versa;
  • some alternative service delivery models may transfer the custody or control of records to the private sector; and
  • due to the expense of GIS applications, public/private partnerships for such ventures are not uncommon.

All of these factors contribute to the increased blurring of boundaries between public and private collection, use and disclosure of data.(79) As there is no data protection legislation for the private sector currently in place in Ontario, there is the concern is that this blurring might create the potential for abuse as it might expose people’s private lives to the view of unauthorized persons who could use the information to make adverse economic and social decisions about them.(Bennett, Regulating Privacy, p. 34)

Public Awareness and Expectations

It has been argued that a GIS application designed for internal government use is a matter of administrative efficiency and, therefore, the public need not be party to the decision-making process. It has been further argued that geographic information should not raise personal privacy concerns because it is factual information about land and resources and, therefore, by definition is not about identifiable people. However, others think the strong data integration and analysis capabilities of GIS technology, combined with the fact that most GIS data are inherently local in nature, means that the technology has the potential to be far more privacy invasive than many other information technologies.(81) These differing views have lead to widely divergent expectations on what, if any, privacy protection is required for GIS records.

People tend to think their privacy has been invaded when their expectation of privacy is not met. When an organization introduces GIS technology it can create a drastic shift in information practices. When this shift is not communicated to the data subjects, their expectations may be out-of-step with reality, and they may feel violated and betrayed by the organization. As an example, people give certain information relating to themselves to government on the understanding that the resulting records will be publicly available. However, when they are unaware of the type of technology involved with those records or the potential of that technology, many people may have an expectation that their “public” information will be somewhat private. In one sense, despite today’s electronic environment, people still have faith that the inefficiency of voluminous paper records will protect their privacy because the process of tracking down “public” data specifically about them is extremely onerous and difficult.

When government records are digitized for a GIS, not only are informational privacy issues raised that are not present with the hardcopy records, but the very use of GIS technology can impact the relationship between citizen and government. It can shift the balance and expectations within that relationship by increasing the power and control of government organizations.

New Challenges

In today’s electronic environment, issues that did not exist with hardcopy records are coming to the forefront, and new information technology is creating new challenges for government organizations. In particular, the electronic environment means that the application and interpretation of the privacy protection provisions worldwide or domesticaly are not always simple and clear-cut. As an example, two issues that should be re-examined in the context of GIS technology are:

  • what constitutes personal information; and
  • should privacy protection be applied to public records.

GIS technology highlights the transformative nature of electronic records. It creates new types of records and enables analysis never before possible. This means information that traditionally has not been thought of as personal in nature, or that has been publicly available without adverse effect, can take on a new and privacy-sensitive character when digitized and combined with other data using a GIS. People who provide information to the government never imagined, much less consented to, the ways in which their information can be used in a GIS.(82)

GIS technology permits data to be aggregated and disaggregated in new ways, resulting in an expanded ability to identify individuals and their property. When the isolated pieces of information in a GIS database are drawn together, a very detailed picture of a specific location and the people associated with that location can be created. This creates the potential for privacy invasion not associated with paper records or with the disaggregated information.(E.F. Epstein, “Legal Aspects of GIS,” in Geographic Information Systems – Principles and Applications, Vol. 1, p. 495)

As noted above, much of the criticism directed at GIS applications centres around the fact that information is collected, used, amalgamated, and disclosed without the data subject’s knowledge or consent. Regardless of whether GIS databases are composed of public records or not, some privacy advocates see these practices as a direct violation of fair information practices.

They argue there are informational privacy interests in data that are public. They believe that privacy interests are altered, or increased, when publicly available information in hardcopy is compiled and computerized so that it is available from a central and searchable source. It is thought that there is a significant difference between public records that might be found after a diligent search of hardcopy records in many locations, and a computerized summary located in a single clearinghouse of information.(United States Department of Justice, et al., v. Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press et al. (109 S. Ct. 1468 [1989]), p. 1477)

In the postscript of Order P-1316, an Ontario Commissioner noted that the sheer enormity of the task of finding information on an individual from hardcopy public records makes it unlikely that the information would be used other than for purposes for which it was collected. Citing the United States Supreme Court, the Commissioner described this as privacy protection based on “practical obscurity.” The Commissioner concluded that:

“… in order for government organizations to determine what personal information should be publicly available electronically, a new test is needed – what I have heard described as putting the information to the “Internet Challenge.” This test would involve an assessment of how the public would respond if the information was available on the Internet where quite literally anyone in the world would have access to it. If the sense was that the public would respond negatively, the information should not be made publicly available in identifiable form in an electronic format…

In a world of electronic information, “practical obscurity” is no longer sufficient protection for publicly available personal information since in reality, it no longer exists. Indeed, the availability of information electronically creates an urgent need to address the overriding question — just how much is someone else entitled to know about you?.”

Proactive Approach

Without careful analysis and planning, the use of GIS technology may violate informational privacy by the collection of irrelevant information; the use of information for unrelated purposes; the collection, use, retention and disclosure of inaccurate data; the potential collection, use or disclosure without the data subjects’ knowledge or consent; the lack of access and ability to correct information; and the lack of opportunity for data subjects to participate in decisions relating to their information.

Often both technology and privacy are viewed as being desirable, but as standing in a zero-sum relation to each other.(Tracy B. Strong, “The Practical Unity of Community and Privacy,” Humanitas, Vol. XI, p. 85) The IPC thinks that protection of privacy should not be viewed as an impediment to the adoption of GIS technology. Rather, with the consideration of privacy during the design of an application, rather than after implementation, both privacy protection and product or service delivery can be enhanced. The IPC believes that GIS technology can be managed so that government organizations and the public can enjoy both its benefits and ensure that privacy has not been unduly compromised.(Norman Y. Mineta, “Transportation, Technology and Privacy,” Santa Clara Computer and High Technology Law Journal — Privacy and ITS, March 1995, p. 7)

It is the organization, rather than the data subject, that controls the functions and parameters of the system, and determines what information will be collected, used, retained, or disclosed. Therefore, it is also the organization that bears the responsibility for ensuring that all GIS applications recognize informational privacy issues and are designed and implemented in accordance with established fair information practices.

Experience has shown that it is extremely difficult and expensive to retro-fit complex computer systems with privacy protections.

Literature Review on Geographic Information Systems (GIS)

In the Encyclopedia of Public Administration and Public Policy, [1] Akhlaque Haque offers the following summary about the topic of Geographic Information Systems (GIS): Geographic information systems (GIS) are powerful analytical tools that facilitate decision making through visualization of interactive maps over a computer screen. It is one of the most widely used applications in local government providing policy analysts new capabilities of communicating and disseminating information to stakeholders and elected officials. The entry provides an overview of GIS and its implications for public policy.


Notes and References

  1. Entry about Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in the Encyclopedia of Public Administration and Public Policy (2015, Routledge, Oxford, United Kingdom)

See Also

Further Reading

  • Global Encyclopedia of Public Administration, Public Policy, and Governance (2018, Springer International Publishing, Germany)



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