"Data is the new oil." That goes for how our cities work as much as any other industry.

GIS data adds a new spatial dimension to data sets, helping us understand the importance of location in the meaning of the data around us. And it is set to become a key source of data for city planners.

An increasingly powerful tool with each year of technological leaps, GIS has been described by some experts as the "new spreadsheets."

Thinking spatially

The key to geographic information system (GIS) technology is that it allows us to think spatially.

This is already beginning to happen. Young people today grow up with location data in their pockets each time they open a mapping application to find the right bus route or the nearest coffee shop. Projects such as Florida's Giant Travelling Map are trying to start early with encouraging kids in U.S. schools to think spatially.

But what is so revolutionary about GIS to data enthusiasts is that it understands the importance of a particular data point not only in itself, but also with reference to other data points around it. It helps us understand the geographical context of data.

This is because GIS works by viewing different layers of information, taking into account many viewpoints simultaneously. These layers might show environmental features, different city zones, population data, transport infrastructure or soil erosion, to name just a few.

When it comes to city planning, this might mean that different "layers" of mapped watershed data and population data can help better understand flood risks. More advanced analysis can also use projections for the future to pinpoint where to target new transport infrastructure or new housing developments.

This can be particularly useful, for example, where cities have sprawled in an unregulated way, through informal settlements, where GIS can help to plan for communities that have ended up underserved by basic services.

GIS in action — ParkScore

Thinking spatially is all very well, but what does this mean on a daily basis for city dwellers? Let's look at more vivid example.

The ParkScore index, developed by the Trust for Public Land, exploits new GIS possibilities to create a pioneering rating system to measure how well U.S. cities are meeting park needs.

The platform ranks 100 cities on a national level with Minneapolis and St. Paul coming out on top, and Indianapolis bringing up the rear. But within cities, too, the mapping technology helps analysts to identify which neighborhoods and demographics are underserved by parks.

This helps citizens understand the park system in their own city and lobby for change. It also helps planners to manage public land and better target the development of green space.

A resident of San Francisco can now easily pull up a graph of access to parks by age groups, measured by how many live within a 10-minute walk of a park. The power of GIS tools means that even obstacles such as rivers can be taken into account in access. You can even check out how many basketball hoops your city has per 10,000 people.

Turboboosting the power of maps

As the cliche goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. By visualizing the data on our cities, as we have done for centuries, we can help to better understand them. But traditional maps don't have the same power as GIS to ask questions and to make predictions for the future.

They also struggle to dynamically illustrate interaction: how watersheds interact with housing ... parks with bicycle infrastructure ... basketball hoops with population growth ...

GIS has ability to greatly increase the quality of planning for sustainable development. However, the greatest constraint will not be its own technical capacities, but rather the organizational change and skills sets it requires to create impact.