5 Types of Questions GIS can Answer

Technology benefits should influence buying decisions more that than product features and pricing. To help you consider GIS for your business, I discuss the 5 types of questions a GIS can answer. This article will also be helpful to aspiring and practicing data scientists and analysts.

1.     Where is it?

This is a question that GIS answers by locating geographic places or objects. For instance, you can search for towns by the name of Lokichoggio, or the nearest petrol station based on your location. The results of such queries are returned as coordinates, shown on a map, or used as input for a subsequent process.

You could probably answer such questions on your own, but GIS excels in multi-criteria decision analysis. For example, it can come up with your perfect holiday by finding destinations that have good weather, natural beauty, and entertainment for the kids at affordable cost. If you plan on farming, GIS can assist you in finding vacant and affordable agricultural land, with the right weather and soil conditions, and good access to markets for growing coffee or any other crop.

2.     What is at?

This question inverses the first one, and helps you to query conditions at a point location or within a defined area. When presented with an opportunity to buy a dream house in Mombasa, you can use GIS to look up property values and trends, crime statistics, and traffic volumes within the area. In addition, you might want to use GIS to calculate the distance from your house to social amenities like schools, hospitals and shopping centers.

3.     What has changed?

This involves the previous two questions and looks at changes over time through temporal analysis. To put this differently we can either track the movement of objects or phenomena or study how an area changes over time.

As an example of tracking movements, GIS can compare forest cover in Kenya between 1980 with 2010, or compare the sightings of elephants from the last two wildlife counts in Tsavo National Park. With GPS one can also track moveable assets and measure how much a delivery truck has moved over the last hour.

To illustrate changes in an area, GIS can compare land use in Laikipia between 1990 and 2015 to quantify changes in land use (e.g. conversion from grazing land to farmland). In the town of Nairobi, GIS can look at changes in traffic volume on Uhuru Highway over different days of the week or times of the day.

4.     What patterns and relations exist?

Data is often easier to interpret when visualized in the form of a map, but such interpretations are subjective or at best qualitative. Spatial statistics helps us to quantify patterns and relationships within spatial data in a scientific manner.

Analysis of patterns answers questions like whether incidences of malaria in Nairobi occur in a dispersed, clustered or random manner. It can also identify hotspots and coldspots of crime, or measure the mean center of a town’s population.

Many of us use or have used regression analysis, but did you know that GIS can measure and quantify relationships between variables in a geographic context? This is powerful, since it can determine whether the factors that cause poverty in Garissa County are significantly different from the ones in Nairobi. This in turn will help in coming up with the right policy interventions.

The above examples looked at coincidence of features, but another type of relationship that can be analyzed is connectivity. This helps to answer questions like what’s the quickest route from home to work, or which customers are connected to a water main that needs repair.

5.     What if …?

So far, we have mainly looked at various types of questions that GIS can answer through data management and analysis. As a next step, GIS can use spatial relationships to build predictive models that help to answer questions in respect of the future.

For example, GIS could predict how much traffic will pile up at KNH when the widening of Ngong Road is completed. Or to use a simpler example, when a pizza will be delivered when ordered for. Answering these questions requires geographic and other information or models.


We have discussed five types of questions that a GIS could answer, but the specific questions that a GIS could help answer is much wider, and dependent on your business or industry.

Nevertheless, I trust that the type of questions presented here provide you with a good starting point and help you to discover whether GIS is a technology that could benefit you.

Questions? Use GIS or leave a comment. No question? Contact me and I’ll help you find some.

About Author:

Willy Simons came to Kenya from The Netherlands in 1994. He is a serial entrepreneur and co-founder of Oakar Services, Esri Eastern Africa and Spatiality. He blogs about business, geospatial technology and cloud computing.