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21 Aug
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Why it’s time to start using GIS - Guest Blog - Dr. Alasdair Rae

NJL Consulting has recently worked with the University of Sheffield’s Geographical Information System (GIS) Masters students to provide a ‘real world’ perspective on the application of GIS. 

We set students a brief which involved development site identification and asked them to identify a solution using the computer software.  We were really impressed with the results which led us to question how we could make better use of GIS within our field of work.  With this in mind, we asked Senior Lecturer Dr. Alasdair Rae to share his views with us on what GIS can do and why planners should start using it.  Here are his illuminating thoughts:

Most people who studied planning as an undergraduate over the past 20 years will probably have had some experience of using GIS as part of their degree. For some, this can conjure up nightmares relating to census area codes, wonky software and scary statistics but the majority of planners currently in practice today will surely recognise the potential utility of GIS in their field. What they might not have noticed, since they are so busy making sure our towns, cities and villages are liveable and efficient is that the field of geographical information systems has come on leaps and bounds in the past five years. As a consequence, it’s probably time that, as a planner, you look again at what GIS can do for you.

As an academic from an urban planning department, the charge sheet against me is pretty loaded. Yes, I work at  University and run an MSc in Applied GIS and therefore have a vested interest in making sure people are interested in GIS and understand it but at the same time I am a part-time member of the so-called ‘real world’. I regularly work with clients outside the higher education sector to produce analysis and data derived from a GIS. In recent years I’ve worked with, among others, Google, Transport for Greater Manchester, the Centre for Cities, the Financial Times, the Department or Education, and a range of other organisations. I also regularly publish the results of my GIS-based analysis on my blog ( so that normal people don’t have to read my boring academic papers and can instead simply read summaries of my work and use the results of my GIS analysis. A recent example of this can be found in my English Green Belt ‘atlas’ where I produced a map for every local authority in England that contains at least some green belt land (example below). I do this not simply as a self-promotion exercise, but to demonstrate the power of GIS as an analytical tool and to share my work with the wider world of planning practitioners. That’s why I’ve been so delighted to work with NJL during the past year.


Going against the grain of academic writing, I will finish with three simple reasons which I think demonstrate why it’s time for your organisation to either re-evaluate your use of GIS, or – dare I say – actually start using it.

1. Better Data. The past five years have seen an explosion in the availability of new, open data source which are of great relevance to planning practice. For example, HM Land Registry’s price paid dataset allows us to determine the location of new housing development and DCLG’s release of green belt data has allowed us to gain a better understanding of exactly what, and where, the green belt is. Some of the things we can do with GIS were simply not possible 5 years ago because of the lack of free, good quality data.

2. Better Software. A more recent development has been the arrival of a range of new, open source options for mapping and analysing spatial data. By far the best of these options is QGIS. It might sound a little scary but it’s free, constantly developing and in my opinion is much better than existing – often very expensive – GIS software options. Many local authorities are now using it but if you want an idea of the kinds of outputs you can produce with it, take a look at my blog or the QGIS Map Showcase on Flickr:

3. Go back to the olden days. This might be a little controversial, but for me there just aren’t enough good maps in planning these days. If you go back to the ‘glory days’ of planning in the 1950s and 1960s, when the profession was probably at its peak in terms of public visibility, good maps were everywhere. You can see this in the amazing 1959 Chicago Area Transportation Plan (all online, take a look!) or in the Maps section of my University’s JR James Archive. Maps are an invaluable way of presenting our plans, yet the skills required to produce the very highest quality, high impact images are currently under-developed and a re-engagement with GIS could solve this.


Dr. Alasdair Rae


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