Geographic Information Systems

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is a way of organizing and administering information related to location. The uses of GIS in Ulster County and elsewhere seem limitless. When you log on to the GIS web-site for Ulster (, a standard map is shown. However, as you zoom in and out of the map and click the ortho-digital photograph option which displays the section of map you’re looking at with an aerial picture, the typical map suddenly converts into a complex field of data.

One example of the complex data in GIS is the Marlboro Fire Department’s use of the system to view the locations of fire hydrants and gather information about how many gallons of water each hydrant is capable of delivering.

Today, when you look at the different map layers together in GIS, the majority of the lines don’t match up exactly, and for this reason the current uses of GIS are limited. For instance, GIS is unreliable when it comes to determining things such as legally recognized boundary lines.

With GIS, you can overlay different layers of information as a single image on your computer screen. For example, telephone wires and poles can be one layer and another could be all of the lakes and streams in a given area. GIS cam improve the management of organizations and their resources by using the technology of computers to relate data to specific places. GIS can also be used to analyze map data and aid in overcoming obstacles that occur during the decision making process. For example, GIS can inter-link information and help communities build from of government databases. This feature will not only save time and money for companies, but also the physical efforts saved of separately collecting all of the information that is now available on one program.

Another advantage GIS is its capability of condensing information onto a computer disk, thereby eliminating stacks of hard copy information. Tax maps and other space consuming documents can now be stored electronically and easily retrieved.

GIS assists communities, like Ulster County, in a number of ways. GIS allows mapped out parcel boundaries to be changed with a click of a mouse. This saves replacing expensive hard copy maps to store information on tax parcels. GIS can also be programmed to include street addresses for 911 emergencies, mail delivery systems, and zoning variances.

Another valuable use of GIS is stream mapping to monitor the runoff affecting different bodies of water. This helps to better asses potential runoff of planned development projects.

In spite of the many benefits GIS offers, not everyone is attracted its use. The skepticism is due to primarily to privacy issues. The question “who should be able to pull up what data about whom?” often arises.

Currently the Ulster County GIS map is available on-line for free, but this is not to say that the public should have access to what some feel is private information. In an attempt to appease these critics, the web-site does not give the names of the people who own the parcels of land. However, that information is public record and a person can visit or call their local county clerk’s office to obtain that information. In spite of the current boundary line problems and privacy questions, GIS will remain an important method of analyzing and presenting information, becoming more valuable as it becomes more accurate.


Elizabeth Brooks is a senior at Highland High School. She researched this information with the aid of her father, Richard Brooks, of Brooks and Brooks Surveyors of Highland.