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What is GIS?

A geographic information system (GIS) integrates hardware, software, and data for capturing, managing, analyzing, and displaying all forms of geographically referenced information. GIS allows us to view, understand, question, interpret, and visualize data in many ways that reveal relationships, patterns, and trends in the form of maps, globes, reports, and charts. A GIS helps you answer questions and solve problems by looking at your data in a way that is quickly understood and easily shared. GIS technology can be integrated into any enterprise information system framework.

What Can You Do with GIS?
Map Where Things Are
Mapping where things are lets you find places that have the features you're looking for, and to see where to take action. 1. Find a feature—People use maps to see where or what an individual feature is. 2. Finding patterns—Looking at the distribution of features on the map instead of just an individual feature, you can see patterns emerge.

Maps of the locations of earthquake shaking hazards are essential to creating and updating building codes used in the United States. Online, interactive earthquake maps, as well as seismicity and fault data, are available at

Map Quantities
People map quantities, like where the most and least are, to find places that meet their criteria and take action, or to see the relationships between places. This gives an additional level of information beyond simply mapping the locations of features. This map shows the number of children under 18 per clinically active pediatrician for a particular study area. It was created by the Center for the Evaluative Clinical Sciences at Dartmouth Medical School as part of an effort to develop a national U.S. database of primary care resources and health services. For example, a catalog company selling children's clothes would want to find ZIP Codes not only around their store, but those ZIP Codes with many young families with relatively high income. Or, public health officials might not only want to map physicians, but also map the numbers of physicians per 1,000 people in each census tract to see which areas are adequately served, and which are not.

Map Densities
While you can see concentrations by simply mapping the locations of features, in areas with many features it may be difficult to see which areas have a higher concentration than others. A density map lets you measure the number of features using a uniform areal unit, such as acres or square miles, so you can clearly see the distribution. Mapping density is especially useful when mapping areas, such as census tracts or counties, which vary greatly in size. On maps showing the number of people per census tract, the larger tracts might have more people than smaller ones. But some smaller tracts might have more people per square mile—a higher density. This map shows population and density in the east Asian

Indian Ocean regions.

Find What's Inside
Use GIS to monitor what's happening and to take specific action by mapping what's inside a specific area. For example, a district attorney would monitor drug-related arrests to find out if an arrest is within 1,000 feet of a school--if so, stiffer penalties apply.

This image from The Sanborn Map Company, Inc., shows a geoprocessed sample explosion radius around an area in California. Each separate zone represents 1/4-mile, the outermost perimeter being 1 mile away from the source.

Find What's Nearby
Find out what's occurring within a set distance of a feature by mapping what's nearby. The Pacific Disaster Center has developed and applied a Vulnerability-ExposureSensitivity-Resilience model to map people and facilities (what's nearby) exposed to flood risk in the Lower Mekong River Basin (the feature).

Map Change
Map the change in an area to anticipate future conditions, decide on a course of action, or to evaluate the results of an action or policy.

1. By mapping where and how things move over a period of time, you can gain insight into how they behave. For example, a meteorologist might study the paths of hurricanes to predict where and when they might occur in the future. 2. Map change to anticipate future needs. For example, a police chief might study how crime patterns change from month to month to help decide where officers should be assigned. 3. Map conditions before and after an action or event to see the impact. A retail analyst might map the change in store sales before and after a regional ad campaign to see where the ads were most effective.

These images are from a poster titled "Losing Cape Cod," which is distributed by the Woods Hole Research Center in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The poster shows the severe change in land use on Cape Cod since 1951. The image on the left shows the town of Barnstable in 1951 and the image on the right shows Barnstable in 1999.

Who Uses GIS?

Thousands of organizations use GIS to solve problems and improve processes. Learn best practices and get ideas on how you can implement GIS in your organization or community.

See how businesses, governments, educators and scientists, environmental and conservation organizations, natural resource groups, and utilities benefit from using GIS.


Financial analysts employ GIS for targeting their markets by visualizing service needs. Companies including Metropolitan Life and Chase Manhattan Bank rely on GIS software to help them improve operational excellence and profitability. Learn more.

Many insurance companies have made GIS a central component of their business, using it to visualize, analyze, and distribute risk. Companies such as CHUBB Insurance use GIS software for portfolio risk management. Learn more.


Logistics management requires planning the distribution fleet's activities, route locations, and schedules. Argentina's telephone company, Grupo Telefónica, uses the GIS logistics routing solution shown to the right to increase the number of daily deliveries without increasing resources. Learn more.


GIS is used by media bureaus for everything from analyzing circulation and attracting advertisers to creating the maps used in the material itself. The Associated Press (AP), USA TODAY, and National Geographic Society use GIS software to create accurate maps quickly for magazines, newspapers, and online news services. GIS maps can help the media keep the public informed about street closures or openings and other emergency services, as in this map of lower Manhattan from the AP. Learn more.

Real Estate

From map-based contact management to sophisticated investment analysis in large real estate investment trusts, real estate agencies rely heavily on electronic mapping. Many realtors have found great success in using the Internet to market properties. Companies such as SSR Realty Advisors, Inc. use GIS in commercial real estate, while uses GIS to bring maps online to 1.2 million people shopping for a new home. Learn more.

Retail Business

Businesses maintain information about sales, customers, inventory, demographic profiles, and mailing lists, all of which have geographic locations. Therefore, business managers, marketing strategists, financial analysts, and professional planners increasingly rely on GIS to organize, analyze, and present their business data.

Companies such as Sears have saved millions of dollars by managing deliveries with GIS. Gold's Gym Enterprises uses GIS to study new franchise locations. Smaller companies, such as Ultra Marine Kayaking of Santa Cruz, California, find GIS useful and cost-effective for creating accurate and attractive maps for promotional materials. Learn more.

National Government

Government agencies trust GIS technology to establish and regulate policy and to strengthen the welfare of their citizens. GIS is also an intelligent means for agencies to provide public information. The U.S. government relies heavily on GIS to evaluate the results of U.S. Census 2000. The city of Madrid, Spain, uses GIS to create its Plan General de Ordenación Urbana to link documents and image files to map features for an integrated view of information. Learn more.

Local Government
Revenue collection, economic development, and public information are just a few opportunities that GIS affords municipalities. The cities of Madrid, Geneva, and Paris all use GIS for providing many city services. Bregenze, a small township in Austria, uses GIS to meet the needs of its 12 government departments. Learn more.

Homeland Security

GIS assets at local, regional, and national levels are used in emergency response in the areas of detection, risk assessment, mitigation and prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery. Utilized in both natural and human-induced disasters, GIS has merged into the common operating procedures for public safety and emergency response activities. City, county, state, and federal-level agencies use GIS as a common framework for organizing and sharing data in a digital world. Learn more.

Military Defense

Military defense uses GIS for intelligence, terrain analysis, mission planning, and facilities management. Geographic analysis is critical in military operations, tactical or logistical planning, and infrastructure management. Sweden integrates global positioning systems (GPS) into its mobile GIS for a mine-clearing management system in Bosnia. Learn more.

Fire/Emergency Medical Services/Disaster

GIS allows public safety personnel to effectively plan for emergency response, determine mitigation priorities, analyze historical events, and predict future events. Wilson Fire/Rescue Services in Wilson, North Carolina, uses GIS to get critical information to incident responders upon dispatch or while en route to an emergency to assist in tactical planning. Learn more.

Law Enforcement

GIS is an effective crime-fighting tool. Police analysts use GIS for planning and event modeling, tactical and strategic planning, and incident mapping. The Chicago Police Department Informative Collection of Automated Mapping (ICAM) gives all police officers access to information about crime throughout the city. Learn more.


Effective health care services management uses GIS not only to show what resources and needs exist but also where to find them. Health experts also put GIS to work in epidemiological and public health monitoring. They can geographically track public health indicators, identify disease clusters, and explore sites of environmental risk. For example, public health departments use GIS for mosquito abatement programs. The state of Pennsylvania offers an online Web site for its West Nile Virus Surveillance Program. Learn more.


GIS serves three distinct transportation needs: infrastructure management, fleet and logistics management, and transit management. GIS offers insight for network planning and analysis, vehicle tracking and routing, inventory tracking, and route planning analysis. The city of Budapest, having 20,000 to 30,000 unexpected road repairs a year, relies heavily on its GIS to help plan, coordinate, manage, and complete repair work in a timely fashion. Learn more.

A Framework for GIS Analysis

Step 1: Ask Step 2: Acquire Step 3: Examine Step 4: Analyze Step 5: Act

Geography is the science of our world. Coupled with GIS, geography is helping us to better understand the earth and apply geographic knowledge to a host of human activities. The outcome is the emergence of The Geographic Approach—a new way of thinking and problem solving that integrates geographic information into how we understand and manage our planet. This approach allows us to create geographic knowledge by measuring the earth, organizing this data, and analyzing and modeling various processes and their relationships. The Geographic Approach also allows us to apply this knowledge to the way we design, plan, and change our world.