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Geographic Information Systems

Jim X. Chen, George Mason University

Pages: pp. 8-9

Geographic information systems (GIS) integrate modern information acquisition, storage, analysis, and management tools in applications that solve problems related to geospatial information. Among the special tools that GIS use are

  • remote sensing tools, which use a variety of devices (such as aircraft and satellites) and methods (such as photography and radar) to gather information on a given object or area from a distance;
  • geography tools, to study the features, inhabitants, resources, and evolutions of the Earth and its environment; and
  • visualization software, which presents useful information from acquired data using 2D and 3D images or animations.

New technologies have opened the door for scientists to tackle novel problems at a distance and scale that were impossible to even imagine a couple of decades ago. This has led to the emergence of a new science—geographic information science—that covers geographic concepts, applications, and systems and is now taught in degree programs at many universities.

This special issue addresses the challenges in handling geographic problems at a global scale, from earthquakes to climate change, and from water-resource distribution to mountain classification. The various research and applications herein can help foster greater insight and understanding of specific geographic problems and share innovative techniques for addressing these problems in the fast-growing interdisciplinary community. The response to the call for papers was overwhelming; to focus the issue and illuminate the interrelatedness of GIS challenges in a region, I've selected a set of articles that address specific geographic problems in China. I believe you'll find the articles informative, valuable, and rewarding, both in terms of the new findings they present and the original techniques they employ to solve pressing geographic problems.

In "Rapid Assessment of Secondary Disasters Induced by the Wenchuan Earthquake," Jianrong Fan, Jim X. Chen, Bingwei Tian, Dong Yan, Genwei Cheng, Peng Cui, and Wen Zhang share their experiences in combining remote sensing data and GIS methods to locate the barrier lakes formed after the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake. As they report here, their efforts not only located earthquake-induced barrier lakes, but also assessed their destruction potential to help prevent possibly disastrous consequences. The researchers also assessed and reported on post-earthquake farmland and forest losses.

In "Using GIS and Fuzzy Sets to Evaluate the Olive Tree's Ecological Suitability in Sichuan Province," Xiang Guo, Dong Yan, Jianrong Fan, Wanze Zhu, and Mai-He Li present methods that employ GIS spatial analysis functions and comprehensive fuzzy sets to evaluate and analyze the ecological suitability of a specific crop for a specific geographic area. Their results include the actual distribution of olive trees and provide alternative adaptive regions for olive growing in Sichuan, China. Thus, they offer both guidance for olive cultivation in regions previously not considered as suitable, as well as an innovative general approach for applying GIS to this important task.

In "A 3D Geosciences Modeling System for Large-Scale Water-Diversion Project Simulation and Evaluation," Siyuan Liu, Gaojin Wen, and Jianping Fan discuss feasibility analysis of large-scale water-diversion projects through simulation using GIS data and methods. The feasibility analysis involves many hydraulic engineering works—including dams, reservoirs, canals, tunnels, and barriers. The system is based on 3D modeling and visualization techniques integrated with a geospatial database.

Finally, in "Using GIS to Quantify Mountains in China," Xiaobo Jiang, Wei Ji, Hongcheng Zeng, and Leiting Chen describe how they quantified China's mountain areas using two different criteria based on previous work and existing definitions. To achieve this, they employed the existing digital elevation model (DEM) data and classified mountains into six categories according to elevation.

As these articles show, GIS is emerging as an integrated technology that can tackle many problems in nature and society, especially at the global scale. This special issue only skims the surface of an ocean of large-scale GIS applications; others include those that address global warming, desert expansion, vegetation variation, and natural disasters such as those related to weather, fire, and invisible radiation hazards. I hope the articles in this issue will fire up your own imagination and enrich your research and application success. With the ever-growing data acquisition and processing capabilities, an increasing number of key research breakthroughs and application results will appear in the near future; we'll revisit this topic again and anticipate those successful results.

About the Authors

Jim X. Chen is a professor of computer science at George Mason University, where he directs the Graphics Lab. His research interests include virtual reality, visualization, medical imaging, and geographic information systems. Chen has a PhD in computer science from the University of Central Florida. He is an associate editor in chief of CiSE. Contact him at
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