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GIS is a vast and rapidly growing discipline offering a ton of tools, software, and data to reference for any given project. It can feel overwhelming to have so much material to weed through, so this guide is aimed at providing a curated collection of trustworthy mapping resources to inform any GIS endeavor you may be taking on. Eventually you will hone your own list of favorite tools and data sources, but this page is a good place to start.
When using GIS to create maps, conduct analysis, or develop data visualization products, it is important to become familiar with a variety of software platforms. Before you establish your own preferences, start by experimenting with a few to help build your skillset.
ArcGIS Pro is the premier geospatial software offered by parent company Esri (and the successor to ArcGIS Desktop). The interface allows users to explore databases, import files, and access a plethora of toolboxes and ribbons to develop complex spatial analysis and cartographic products.
Key takeaway: While ArcGIS is the leading geospatial software, an individual license is expensive. It is also built for use with its proprietary data types (i.e., the shapefile) and the rest of the Esri suite of interoperable platforms (ArcGIS Enterprise, ArcGIS Online, and various extension packages), which can make it very powerful but challenging to integrate with non-Esri products.
QGIS is a free, open-source, and OS-agnostic GIS platform for creating, editing, analyzing, and visualizing spatial data using built-in capabilities as well as add-on plug-ins. The platform is inherently user-driven, meaning contributions can be made by anyone in the community.
Key takeaway: QGIS can accomplish almost all the same processing and visualization tasks as ArcGIS and has a similar user interface; however, working with the plug-ins rather than the built-in toolboxes takes some getting used to.
Google Earth Pro
A platform that even non-GIS users are familiar with, Google Earth Pro lets satellite imagery shine. Although it prioritizes one specific file type (KML/KMZ), it does allow on-the-fly visualization of points, lines, and polygons in a free, web-based user interface.
Key takeaway: Google Earth is a great platform to present spatial data quickly and simply, especially if your goal is to overlay it on high resolution, accurate satellite imagery. But what you gain in familiar Google interface, you lose in complex analytic function.
Another open-source geoprocessing engine, GRASS GIS is equipped with robust tools for large-scale geospatial modeling. As one of the original geospatial software projects (under continuous development since the 1980s), GRASS is a community-driven platform with hundreds of modules for processing and modeling data from disparate sources.
Key takeaway: Migrating from ArcGIS to QGIS requires a bit of a learning curve, but the leap to GRASS is even steeper. It can be extremely powerful for complex scientific research, satellite imagery analysis, and spatial modeling, but when it comes to mapping and data visualization, stick to the other GIS platforms.
If online mapping is more your speed, Felt might be the tool for you. A user-friendly browser-based map system, Felt is new on the scene and complete with import/export, drawing, pin dropping, and boundary tracing functions.
Key takeaway: Although Felt is by no means one of the top-performing geospatial software platforms, it is representative of a new age of mapping tools that is breaking down barriers to entry. It started as a spatial team collaboration tool (think Google Docs but for maps) but has expanded to allow for more advanced visualization and presentation features.
There are countless data sources for geospatial data, and it can be hard to tell which ones are accurate and authentic. Fortunately, there are a number of reliable free datasets available to the public that are well maintained and easily accessible.
For any given project, it can be helpful to narrow down your area of interest and search for site-specific data first. For example, if you are conducting research on wetlands in Florida, start by navigating to the GIS portal(s) operated by the state of Florida or even a specific county. Municipalities, counties, cities, and local universities often have accurate online data that’s free.
Then widen your search to any of the following data portals. Most of these are global databases, meaning they will have data at various scales to serve a variety of purposes. Explore away!
|Data Type||Source Name & Description|
|Raster data (land use/land cover, satellite imagery, elevation)||USGS EarthExplorer is a web portal for downloading satellite imagery, aerial photographs, and other remote sensing products.|
|The Copernicus Open Access Hub provides users with free and easy access to Sentinel products through a user-friendly and well-documented interface.|
|Hydrology & Topography||USGS National Map Downloader is a web portal for downloading the National Hydrology Dataset (NHD) and Watershed Boundary Dataset (WBD), as well as relevant supplemental data like transportation, elevation, and infrastructure.|
|Administrative||OpenStreetMap is not only a tremendous repository of crowdsourced building footprints, roadways, places, and boundaries; it is also a handy platform for mapping on the fly and contributing to a future version of the dataset.|
|Miscellaneous||Despite keeping much of their software behind a paywall, Esri does host an Open Data Hub with hundreds of thousands of free datasets posted publicly by users. Users can visualize the data in a map viewer before downloading, as well as select the export format they prefer. (ArcGIS Online users can also search for free, public datasets using the Map Viewer in their AGOL account).|
|Natural Earth Data is an enormous open source, public domain dataset available at multiple scales. Including both vector (points, lines, and polygons) and raster data (shaded relief and colored climate zones), this is a useful base layer for many cartographic products.|
|DIVA GIS is a handy source for downloading country-level shapefiles, from administrative boundaries to roads, elevation, land cover, population, and climate data.|
|FAO GeoNetwork is huge compilation of data sources provided by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The products range from farming to environmental, transportation, infrastructure, and utilities.|
GIS Learning & Collaborating
For more information on geospatial learning, and an ever-expanding repository of blog posts, articles, and resources, integrate the following websites into your GIS workflows.
The Spatial Community
If you’re looking for a more social platform for GIS users, look no further than The Spatial Community. A Slack network for thousands of geospatial professionals and students, this network is a safe space for self-proclaimed “geo-geeks” to collaborate on projects, answer one another’s questions, or even discuss adjacent topics like books and video games.
The online video platform is a fantastic place to learn GIS skills, as most tutorials will display the instructor’s screen and therefore all the correct buttons to click and commands to type. In the case of cartographic best practices, Esri’s John Nelson is a great resource to learn everything from specific shading, styles, and color schemes to breaking down old school map rules. All the videos are short and approachable; plus, his blog on Esri’s website is worth bookmarking if you would rather read through the guides.
Have a specific geospatial software issue or analysis question? There is almost always a quick and simple video tutorial on YouTube depicting a solution.
More Online Tutorials
Of course, if you prefer to learn through guided coursework, there are many degree and certificate programs, as well as free or inexpensive online classes to learn GIS:
- LinkedIn Learning (many employers have subscriptions to this robust catalog of technical learning, as do some public libraries)
- Esri Academy to learn specific analytic and technical skills
- Udemy courses on open-source GIS platforms like QGIS or programming languages like Python
The GIS community is growing rapidly. New students are emerging from academia with deep knowledge of new technology, and existing professionals are developing ways to automate spatial processes and generate stunning data visualizations like never before. The companies developing software platforms and releasing data are constantly coming up with improvements, which means learning and collaborating with other GIS users is more important than ever.
Although we’ve only scratched the surface of the software, data, and online resources available to GIS users, this collection of information is a good place for you to begin building your knowledge base. With these tools, the world of geospatial analysis and cartography is at your fingertips!