GIS and the Coffee Cup

Coordinates, caffeine, and creamer — they’re all part of it.


By Adam Feigl (Posted Nov. 1, 2018):

Myriad data is attributable to that simple coffee cup at your desk. Imagine how much data you can get from large manufacturing plants and huge plots of land, or from a mining site.

Ever since I graduated from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in 2005 and decided to work with geographic information systems (GIS), I’ve been asked to describe what I do for a living.  Most of the time, the inquirer has been a family member or a good friend trying to understand the field I decided to pursue as a career. Trying to explain, I look into the inquirer’s eyes and see a glossed-over look of confusion. At the end of my explanation, the inquirer states: “I still don’t get it.” With a long and resigned sigh, I clarify with three words: “I make maps.”

For a few years, I gave up trying to explain.  Instead, I would describe my job as that of a cartographer, which in turn would be greeted with “What’s that?” Again, with resignation, I would reply with “I make maps.” It’s not that I didn’t understand the career I chose, or that almost everyone I run into has no idea what a cartographer is; it’s the fact that GIS is hard to explain because of its complexity. In spite of my frustration, I have developed an analogy to help people understand GIS and the powerful tool it can be to the client and user. I call this analogy “GIS and the Coffee Cup.” If you really get to know me, you’ll learn that I love food and drink analogies. It seems to be the easiest way for me to explain things to others. Why? Everyone’s got to eat and drink.

The coffee cup is in space. It has a location on this earth, probably in front of you while you’re reading this blog article. Thus, the coffee cup has a location identified by x and y coordinates. What’s great about GIS is that your coffee cup is made up of an abundant amount of data and you don’t even know it. Everything in space has data attributed to it. A lot of people think this is what GIS does — places a point on a map where your coffee cup is located. This is just the beginning friends.

The coffee cup has a z-elevation as well, making it three-dimensional. The coffee cup has a height from the base to the top, a diameter, the arc of the handle, and maximum volume of coffee that can be poured into the cup. These are measurements that are stored into a database and can be taken from the coffee cup specs probably designed in CAD or another design program. So, are spatial coordinates what separates GIS from CAD? No. It’s the attributes of the coffee cup and how it ties into a relational database.

The attribute data continues to tabulate into more qualitative fields and records. What kind of coffee do you have in the mug? Is it caffeinated? Does it have creamer or milk? Does it contain pure sugar or Splenda? How hot is the coffee? Is there a difference in the temperatures from first pour to 10 minutes after first pour? What is that percentage of temperature loss? How does this relate to other coffee mugs? What material is the coffee mug made out of? What does it say on the coffee mug? How many “I ♥ My Mom” coffee mugs are there in engineering firms across Upstate South Carolina? The data is never-ending, and this is just for a simple coffee cup located at your desk. Imagine how much data you can get from large manufacturing plants and huge plots of land, or from a mining site.

Managing and understanding this data is the key to client success in an industry.  Using GIS, SynTerra provides data management of site assets for our clients. We can develop, manage, and maintain management systems that can be accessed online 24/7 using a secure password-protected client portal. A formaldehyde tank, a storm water basin, or a paint hanger contains tons of data — just like a coffee cup. In the case of the tank or the basin or the hanger, the client may need to access the data at a moment’s notice. Having this information collected and at the palm of your hand is essential in environmental decision-making and decreases the use of multiple file cabinets, endless amounts of paper sorting, and questions about who actually has the institutional knowledge of the processes and procedures. It’s funny how something so small and ordinary as a coffee cup can show you a more efficient, and just plain better, way to manage your data using GIS.