What is GIS?

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As an emerging technology itself, the field of geographic information systems (GIS) is constantly evolving.  Over a span of twenty years, members of the geographic information community have seen this technology evolve from command line, workstation-based software to tools that can now be used in the cloud and via mobile devices.

What is the Definition of a GIS?

This is probably the most asked question posed to those in the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) field and is probably the hardest to answer in a succinct and clear manner. GIS is a technological field that incorporates geographical features with tabular data in order to map, analyze, and assess real-world problems.

The key word to this technology is Geography – this means that some portion of the data is spatial.  This means that the data  is in some way referenced to locations on the earth. Coupled with this data is usually tabular data known as attribute data. 

Parcel data is a form of cadastral GIS Data showing the boundaries and attribute information about properties in a given area.
Parcel data is a form of cadastral GIS Data showing the boundaries and attribute information about properties in a given area.

Attribute data can be generally defined as additional information about each of the spatial features.  An example of this would be schools. The actual location of the schools is the spatial data.  Additional data such as the school name, level of education taught, student capacity would make up the attribute data. 

It is the partnership of these two data types that enables GIS to be such an effective problem solving tool through spatial analysis.

What is GIS Used For?

GIS operates on many levels.  On the most basic level, geographic information systems technology is used as computer cartography, that is for straight forward map making.

Spatial Analysis

The real power of GIS, however, is through using spatial and statistical methods to analyze attribute and geographic information. 

The end result of the analysis can be derivative information, interpolated information or prioritized information.  Data layers are analyzed in order to answer different spatial questions. GIS maps are then produced that visualize the analyzed GISdata.

Some examples of the types of questions that GIS is used to answer might be:

GIS Cartography

The end product of any GIS analysis is typically a map. This could be a printed map or an online mapping product like ArcGIS Online.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about GIS

Are GIS and geospatial the same?

There is an increasing trend to use the term geospatial instead of GIS.  What is the difference between geospatial and GIS?  

Although some may use the terms interchangeably, there is a distinct difference between the two in that GIS refers more narrowly to the traditional definition of using layers of geographic data to produce spatial analysis and derivative maps.  

Geospatial is more broadly use to refer to all technologies and applications of geographic data.  For example, popular social media sites such as Foursquare and Facebook use “check-ins” that allow their users the ability to geographically tag their statuses.  While those applications are considered to be geospatial, they don’t fall underneath the stricter definition of what makes up a geographic information system.

More: What’s is the Difference Between GIS and Geospatial?

What are the different types of GIS Data?

GIS data, also referred to as geospatial data, can be split into two main categories: vector and raster data.  Vector data is data that is represented as either points, lines, or polygons.  Raster data is data that is cell-based such as aerial imagery and elevation data.  More: Types of GIS Data Explored: Vector and Raster

What is the different between a certificate and certification in GIS?

Although the terms seem similar, a certification in GIS is an acknowledgement of proficiency in one or more areas of GIS, usually obtained through taking an examination.  For example, the most common general certificate in GIS is the GISP, offered by the GIS Certification Institute (GISCI).  Esri offers a serious of certification exams for its various software products.  A certificate in GIS typically achieved by taking short series of GIS related courses from an educational institute, culminating in that institute offering a piece of paper acknowledging competition of the course.   A certificate in GIS is not a degree but often employers might accept a certificate in GIS in lieu of a degree in a geography or GIS related major.  More: GIS Certification versus Certificate Programs.

How do I get a GIS job?

Beyond taking coursework GIS, cartography, and programming, there are several strategies you can employ as you seek a career in GIS.  See: Building a GIS CareerTilting the GIS Job Hunting Odds, and Ten Tips to Prepare for a GIS Job Interview.

What programming languages should I learn?

Python is the most common language for scripting, used by both ArcGIS and QGIS.  There are other languages and scripting languages you can learn to round out your skills as a GIS developer: Learning GIS Programming

Quotes on “What is GIS?”

“In the strictest sense, a GIS is a computer system capable of assembling, storing, manipulating, and displaying geographically referenced information, i.e. data identified according to their locations. Practitioners also regard the total GIS as including operating personnel and the data that go into the system.” ~ USGS

A geographic information system (GIS) is a computer-based tool for mapping and analyzing things that exist and events that happen on earth. GIS technology integrates common database operations such as query and statistical analysis with the unique visualization and geographic analysis benefits offered by maps.” ~ Esri

“GIS is an integrated system of computer hardware, software, and trained personnel linking topographic, demographic, utility, facility, image and other resource data that is geographically referenced.” ~ NASA 

A geographic information system is a special case of information systems where the database consists of observations on spatially distributed features, activities or events, which are definable in space as points, lines, or areas. A geographic information system manipulates data about these points, lines, and areas to retrieve data for ad hoc queries and analyses” (Kenneth Dueker,Portland State University, 1979).

GIS has already affected most of us in some way without us even realizing it. If you’ve ever used an Internet mapping program to find directions, congratulations, you’ve personally used GIS. The new supermarket chain on the corner was probably located using GIS to determine the most effective place to meet customer demand.

Uses of GIS 

There are numerous ways in which GIS is used across different industries.  A few examples are:

  1. Emergency response teams normally use GIS when they want to collect logistics with regards to how they will move in times of natural disasters (see: Predicting Natural Disasters and Humanitarian Crises through GIS).
  2. The system also comes in handy when authorities want to discover any potential wetlands that need to be protected from the harmful effects brought about by pollution.
  3. Companies also take advantage of the GIS so that they may be able to choose a strategic market location that has not yet been saturated by other competitors in the particular niche industry.
  4. Management personnel use this system also so that they can be able to locate areas that are bound to suffer from catastrophes with regards to the infrastructure that is in place there.
  5. Any potential spread of diseases & other such like pandemic are usually limited by the use of the GIS since the patterns of their occurrence is predicted in sufficient time.

For more detailed articles highlighting how GIS is used in many industries visit:

A Short History of GIS

One of the most famous early examples of spatial analysis can be traced back to London in the year 1854 when Dr. John Snow was able to predict the occurrence of cholera outbreak (More: John Snow’s Cholera Map using GIS Data). Thanks to the study that Snow released, officials from the government were able to determine the cause of the disease; which was contaminated water from one of the major pumps. The map that Snow came up with was very interesting in that it had the capability of analyzing the phenomena relating to their geographical positions and this was the first time the world was witnessing this. Photozincography was developed in the earlier years of the 1900s and this enabled the maps to be divided into various layers as required. In the initial stages, the process of drawing these maps was lengthy since it involved free hand but this changed later on with the introduction of the computer.

John Snow’s 1854 Cholera Map.

The first GIS was created by Dr. Roger Tomlinson and then introduced in the early 1960s in Canada. During its inception, this system was mainly meant for collecting, storing and then analyzing the capability & potential which the land in the rural areas had. Prior to this, mapping by the use of computers was being used for such cases but this is a method that had numerous limitations associated to it. By the end of the 80s period, the use of GIS had already become popular in other related fields which is why it led to a spur in the growth of the industrial sector. Recently, designers came up with open source software for GIS so that the brilliant technology can be enhanced in a much simpler manner while being made available to all.

Learn more: History of GIS

Components of GIS

The next step in understanding GIS is to look at each area and how they work together.  These components are:

  • Hardware
  • Software
  • Data
  • People


Hardware comprises the equipment needed to support the many activities needed for geospatial analysis ranging from data collection to data analysis. For desktop GIS, the central piece of equipment is the workstation, which runs the GIS software and is the attachment point for ancillary equipment. The use of handheld field technology and mobile GIS is also becoming an important data collection tool in GIS. With the advent of web mapping, web servers have also become an important piece of equipment.


Different types of software are important. Central to this is the GIS application package. Such software is essential for creating, editing and analyzing spatial and attribute data, therefore these packages contain a myriad of geospatial functions inherent to them.

Extensions or add-ons are software that extends the capabilities of the GIS software package.

Component GIS software is the opposite of application software. Component GIS seeks to build software applications that meet a specific purpose and thus are limited in their spatial analysis capabilities.

Utilities are stand-alone programs that perform a specific function. For example, a file format utility that converts from on type of GIS file to another.

There is also web GIS software that helps serve data and interactive maps through Internet browsers.


Geospatial data is the core of any GIS. There are two primary types of data that are used in GIS: vector and raster data. A geodatabase is a database that is in some way referenced to locations on the earth. Geodatabases are grouped into two different types: vector and raster.

Vector data is spatial data represented as points, lines and polygons.  Raster data is cell-based data such as aerial imagery and digital elevation models. 

Coupled with this data is usually data known as attribute data.  Attribute data generally defined as additional information about each spatial feature housed in tabular format. Sometimes attribute data is stored separately in a spreadsheet file such as Excel or Google Sheets. Attribute data is linked back to geospatial data by relating unique values found in the same populated column in the GIS dataset and the attribute data.

In a GIS, each piece of data contains a geographic location and attributes.
In a GIS, each piece of data contains a geographic location and attributes that describe it.  The red dot on the map is a Fortune 1000 company headquarter and the attributes are displayed in the information window.

Documentation of GIS datasets is known as metadata.  Metadata contains such information as the coordinate system, when the data was created, when it was last updated, who created it and how to contact them and definitions for any of the code attribute data.

There are many different ways that GIS data can be collected.  Head up digitizing (the process of tracing GIS data directly on the screen), LiDAR, drones, GPS, and satellites are some of the ways GIS data is created.

Layers of GIS Data
GIS data layers. Source: FCDC


Well-trained GIS professionals knowledgeable in spatial analysis and skilled in using GIS software are essential to the GIS process (More: Building a GIS Career). There are three factors to the people component: education, career path, and networking. The right education is key; taking the right combination of classes.  Selecting the right type of GIS job is important.  A person highly skilled in GIS analysis should not seek a job as a GIS developer if they haven’t taken the necessary programming classes.  Finally, continuous networking with other GIS professionals is essential for the exchange of ideas as well as a support community.

Further reading:

Article last updated: March 16, 2021. Article first written: November 12, 1999.  

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23 thoughts on “What is GIS?”

  1. Indeed GIS is a strong and effective tool free of ambiguities in terms of its spatial domains.

  2. Well structured paper which wets appetite for for more reading and study. I am doing Masters by research on application of Gis in Fire distaster management in my province K (vhembe: South Africa). May you please send me relevant source textbooks.

  3. I’m starting a course in GIS this year and was doing some research about it. I must say your website has given me the heads up I need to understand this exciting field. I’m looking forward to it and am sure your site is going to come in handy in my studies with explanations and other facts. Thanks.

  4. I have read your notes on GIS keenly. My department of Geography, University of Yaounde 1, Cameroon is two years old in this sciences and technology even though students and lecturers as individuals have been exposed to these tools long ago. The notes gives an overall simplified view of our expectations on this domain. The knowledge gathered from the notes is very inspiring to novies even though the future of GIS is not highlighted.That is after GIS what next as was the picture before its discovery. Students and lecturers of my department and countrymen are just mad about GIS in their areas of specialisation and works but lack access to good and simplified material like these notes to go about it or discover more. Looking forward for more on GIS from your databank which may become our database. Thanks

  5. It’s interesting to see that despite the widespread use of location in a lot of apps now, the actual understanding of what GIS as a technical field is still missing.

  6. You make a great point about the difficulty in defining GIS – it is like trying to define IT in a nutshell! It covers so many things and has so many uses that its difficult to pin it down to one thing.

    The number of uses for GIS data is constantly growing and I think with more location based services arriving on the scene we might see more comprehensive geodatabases giving us all a better and more complete picture of the world around us and bringing problems to the attention of the masses e.g. shrinking amazonian forests or melting ice shelfs.

  7. i m graguate in electrical engg: my project based on gis it really enjoy ur article on GIS but want to know if any developing counties can really benfited from GIS,and what are the chances of making it known to other countries .

  8. I’m currently working on a GIS project and seriously… this site Rocks!!!
    It nicely explaines the core aspects of GIS.
    For a beginner, it’s good. But still leaves a lot to work upon for someone working the depths of the subject.
    I just hope to see some more information regarding the subject in the near future..

  9. Everyday life will one day rotate on GIS.
    Because GIS soon if not now has the ability to explain the geograpical phenomenon and compares the past with the present so that the future will be predicted on easily.

    GIS as a science tool gives us an idea on which measures we ought take in order to mitigate the likely adverse phenomenon as a result of our interaction with nature.

  10. i really enjoy ur article on GIS but want to know if any developing counties can really benfited from GIS,and what are the chances of making it known to other countries to embak on.i am a graduate of geography and regional planning dept from Ambrose alli university but will go for my masters in GIS.thnk u

  11. I’m really fasinated about the current world where GIS is playing a central role in major areas of decision making. i must confess it’s being very wonderful.

    I am a student of MGIS in University Of Lagos, Nigeria. I wish to request if possible, for materials like text book, CDs, journals and all sort related to GIS that will help me develop more on my academic pursuit from any quarter please. i can be reached through my mail – mustapo@mtnnigeria.net – anytime.Thanks

  12. I am in employed in the GIS departnment and also student in GIS. I hope your web will be much of assistance to me.

  13. hey!
    In regard to conceptualization of GIS,Why use the overhead projector?
    do we also have a standard defination of GIS?
    What is NOT a GIS? Since it is a system consisting of many aspects ie. its not just a map, softwares, hardwares, personell, etc.
    what is it then?
    otherwise, GIS is an intersting field to just ignore.


  14. Am a student of Geography and environmental management in the university of Port Harcourt Nigeria. The notes here are very wonderful and simplified i have really gained a lot reading them. I would love to have books on GIS or journals to current happenings in GIS as i have no acess to textbooks.

  15. This is really fascinating to have a wonderful field of study like GIS which is focusing towards solving our world from dangers of degradation of our resources at an alarming rate.

    Am a student of Environmental Management at Makerere University but i look foward to Master in GIS as an open door to our technological future.

  16. I real enjoy your GIS notes, they are good but not enough to make a person real interested on GIS to understand much of it.What is real about this GIS! I mean where does it come from and its development with regard to its demand in the field of world spatial analysis,”it’s purposes” I’m sure you can make it.

  17. GIS is an information system used in the making of maps; it is information on the geography of the earth; it is using established resources and expounding with additional information and it is also used in several fields of research. In addition, it is used locally with the taxing entities of our county, such as the sanitation district, fire departments, etc.

  18. I like much the subject of GIS. I’m a graduate from Ardhi University in Tanzania. currently I am working in Green Resouces Limited in the department of GIS and Mapping.

    Your notes are good and I am impresed on it,if you can send me some more materials please and books.

    And I want to do masters in Geospartial Information so i will be more advanced on it.


  19. The power of GIS can not be underestimated and easily understood such that every sector has come to embrace it.

  20. The GIS is our future.

    GIS is serving our world, i hope every man kind, countries, governments and companies realize that…


  21. Please tell me two things concerning on GIS as folloows:-
    1) a multidIsciplinary of GIS
    2) a historical development of platform

  22. Hi There,
    I guess it is very nice to know that you have so much information with accuracy on your webpage. I am a student in GPS-GIS modelling and I would love to be an integral part of your plan if you would like to involve someone remotely in your program – maybe a volunteer data clerk would be okay. Thanks so much. I am still on your webpage.


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