WHILE humans generally no longer wonder whether the earth is round or flat, for many of the world’s six billion inhabitants geography remains a dense subject. A group of Grade 12 geography learners may just disagree, however, after seeing the City of Johannesburg’s geographic information systems (GIS) in action.
On Monday, 12 May some 300 children from over 50 schools in Gauteng attended the annual GIS week at the Metro Centre in Johannesburg. Hosting the event was the City’s corporate geo-informatics (CGIS) department. The department’s director, Marcelle Hattingh, reminded everyone that geography surrounded us and that with the help of GIS, “people make better, more informed decisions”.
Sitting quietly through a morning of presentations laden with jargon and intricate information, learners and teachers alike hung on the words of speakers from the Johannesburg Roads Agency (JRA), Pikitup, City Power and the department of environmental management.
And they came away pleasantly surprised by the many applications this technology offers. “It was an eye-opener. I did not know there was so much to GIS,” said Dumasani Mbatha, a junior City councillor.
This is the first year that GIS forms part of the Grade 12 geography curriculum. While most of the children have learned about the technology, the majority have never seen GIS in practise.
Probably the biggest advantage GIS offers to any discipline is to portray vast amounts of complex information through simple visual maps or graphs. For the user, the information is immediately understandable and can be translated into taking the right action or precaution.
“It helps us to manage our worlds and lives better,” Hattingh stressed.
GIS maps and applications are used almost daily by City departments and entities. Maintaining Johannesburg’s 9 500 kilometres of roads and almost 2 000 traffic signals is a mammoth task in anyone’s book. The JRA used GIS maps to capture the location of the City’s roads. With the same map, problems were tracked and appropriate action taken, confirmed Ron Neeleman, an engineering GIS specialist at the JRA.
Steven Kirk from the City’s emergency management services explains how geographical data is used to track fire incidents “GIS makes maintaining our assets so much easier.”
The roads agency is undertaking an extensive traffic signal programme entailing the conversion of Bus Rapid Transit and 2010 protocol routes to solar power. Neeleman illustrated with GIS maps how identifying the routes and traffic signals became a relatively simple task.
Likewise, Pikitup is applying GIS technology to ease its workload. GIS maps were used to capture Pikitup depot locations and the boundaries they served; it simplified street sweeping and clean-up schedules; and with the maps the location and extent of illegal dumping was tracked, said Karin Rossouw, the GIS manager.
With the help of GIS maps, Pikitup is about to embark on a 300 Hotspots Project, “to identify illegal dumping hotspot areas, how to clean [them] and keep [them] clean”.
Somke Nyamathe from Hill High School was excited about the practical nature of GIS. “It was very interesting that Pikitup uses it. We didn’t know [it] could use it.”
But it is not just municipal entities that benefit from GIS. For the City’s environmental management department running its various programmes without GIS would be a logistical nightmare. With global warming a constant worry, air pollution was a critical area for the department, confirmed Alfred Malatji, an information technology specialist.
The department uses GIS to create spatial models of air pollution across the city, using data obtained from the City’s six air pollution testing stations. The information, which includes meteorological data, pollution sources, surface roughness and atmospheric chemistry, would have taken a statistical mind to analyse. Instead, the data is punched into the GIS software and maps show the exact air pollution hotspots, such as Diepsloot and Soweto, and where interventions will be necessary.
The audience needed no further convincing. It was clear to everyone that whether trends in water pollution needed to be tracked or an electrical distribution network needed to be built, GIS was the tool to make the task just that much easier.
“A database without a spatial component is like bread without yeast – flat,” Hattingh summed it up to everyone’s delight. And her final advice to learners and teachers was to the point: “GIS is the way to go. Do not miss the boat.”