An Introduction to GIS Technology and its Potential Applications in the Catholic Church

(see credit in lower L corner). This map is made by a community of dedicated scientists, cartographers, project managers, explorers, technologists and developers. A GIS allows all these people to communicate with each-other and make maps that tell great stories about our communities and this magnificent planet.

What is GIS?

Though Geographic Information Systems (GIS) may sound intimidatingly technical, GIS technology is actually quite simple, and it is incredibly interesting. If you have ever used Google Maps or Map Quest to locate where you are, or to find directions between two points, then you have already used a GIS.

Maps can reveal routes for travel from one point to another in the landscape. Maps can also show the location of geographic features, such as a town, bedrock geology patterns, or national boundaries. In the twentieth century, a revolution in geographic sciences occurred with the emergence of Geographic Information Systems computer technology. GIS technology provides a way to connect lists of information, like addresses and geographic points, using a computer program that builds a map based on this information. GIS technology made the static Cartesian map a thing of the past, and transformed the map into a dynamic tool for spatial analysis and a way to give vision to discrete data narratives about nations, cities, and homes.

A GIS allows massive amounts of information to be overlaid, analyzed, and correlated based on its location in space. In fact, a GIS allows information about virtually any objects, to be geographically and temporally linked. For example, Geographic Information Systems can be employed to create a map that reveals where to send medical resources by connecting epidemiological data with village coordinates using a few simple commands. A GIS can indicate where there have been mass conversions to Catholicism. It could also reveal where Church lands are hosting rare habitats or playing crucial roles in landscape connectivity. All of this can be accomplished by connecting existing data sets with a map of Church lands. The possibilities for increasing our understanding of the Catholic Church’s spatial operations are numerous, and the potential impact of using this understanding for enhancing the lives of large numbers of people is enormous.

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Why don't you just call it a map?

It’s a bit more. System is an appropriate word to describe how GIS works. A GIS is a system of tools and information; geospatial (geo – earth, spatial – pertaining to space) analysis involves coordinating and connecting information through a variety of programs or interfaces. There is no one correct way to use a GIS, regardless if you prefer coding in an IDE or using a model builder program. However, there are occasions that are more or less appropriate to use different components of a GIS. Working with Geographic Information Systems technology is comparable to creating complex musical tracks by looping and augmenting previously recorded audio tracks. The instruments (tools) can create raw code, AutoCAD documents, Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, Graphic images, etc. GIS Software is like the music mixer; it is what allows all of this information to be recombined and related to its geographic location on the Earth’s surface.

Mapping Catholic lands presents an incredible opportunity to reveal a new understanding of the Church, and to explore how virtuous acts, like helping care for a neighborhood, can have a spatial component. It also presents an opportunity to use creative solutions to address pressing environmental concerns to potentially make a lasting impact on the course of climate change. Mapping could present a new way forward for the Church to become more ecologically and socially sustainable, and to use her resources to do good in even more effective ways.

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So is GIS just a map and a computer?

You actually don’t need a computer to have a GIS. The image below is of the monastery of the sisters of San Giuseppe Di Cluny at Via Angelo Poliziano in Rome, Italy. The map “links” information about the location of monastery houses to their founding years. This is an example of an analogue Geographic Information System on a small-scale. In a GIS we call the houses “points” and the years and coordinates “attributes” connected to those points.