Web Mapping Services are more than maps on websites; they provide georeferenced maps generated from GIS databases that can be used interactively. Google Maps is the obvious example (of sorts) but many more exist. Municipalities and regional districts often give the public access to some of their geospatial data via web mapping services. These are both fun (if you’re of a certain disposition) and sometimes quite useful for citizens or anyone curious about a certain area. Such services vary wildly in complexity, data and tools but at a minimum you can usually search for a property to return assessment info, zoning details, garbage pickup and so on. The City of Castlegar offers such a service: Castle Map.
Castle Map is actually quite decent; you can view orthophotos, elevation data, all the city zoning and Official Community Plan zones, utilities and more. These features are accessible as layers, as in ArcGIS, and you can also buffer features, measure distance and area, create and save a view bookmark, add text and output a view as a PDF. The Regional District of Central Kootenay offers another public GIS portal with which to contrast the Castlegar example.
Similar to the Castle Map but incorporating a larger territory, the RDCK’s Interactive Property Information and Mapping System seems to have a few more feature choices on more layers but is essentially the same in scope of tools, access, etc. A somewhat more impressive example is the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary’s Interactive Mapping System.
Created, in part, by Selkirk College’s Geospatial Reseach Centre (SGRC), this Web Mapping Service has some extra bells and whistles like the option to open your own Shapefile or CSV, Batch Geocode, change layer symbology and more.
One last example is the stupefyingly layer mad City of Vancouver Public VanMap. Among other layers, you can choose to view such things as:
- Crime Data, by year and type
- Location of poster cylinders, rooftop gardens, public art, homeless shelters, drinking fountains (and more)
- All sorts of transportation related features
- Car share locations
- Public washrooms, libraries, hospitals, etc.
- Graffiti locations (marked by little spray cans!)
Web Mapping Services can provide the public with a lot of useful geographic information accessible from a single portal. The capacity to interactively choose whatever layers are useful and thereby tailor the map is excellent and much more efficient than creating a lot of different static maps. In considering them, it’s easy to wonder if they qualify as ‘proper’ GIS and the answer is far from clear. They do allow for the display and querying of geographic data but this is limited when compared to a product like ArcMap. Moreover their analysis functions are basically non-existent and this in particular likely invalidates them a real GIS, at least from the vantage of the specialist GIS community. And of course, WMS have a lot of limits: what data you can view, how you can view that data, what you can export, etc. That Web Mapping Services are so heavily derived from GIS, however, should probably take some of the certainty from any denial of their GIS status. Perhaps it’s better to not get buried in the details of just what GIS is. Perhaps a great strength of GIS is it breadth and versatility, its aversion to vector-crisp definition a sign of its robustness. I’d prefer to think of WMS and Arc-like programs as, respectively, the bicycles and automobiles in the higher category of ‘vehicles’ that represents ‘GIS. ArcMap and cars might be faster and have more features but they’re pricey and can be hard to use; bikes and WMS are fun and cheap and serve a serious purpose.