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1 An Introduction to GIS
Geography has always been important and conflict for at least the past 3,000 years
to humans. Stone-age hunters anticipated (Figure 1-1). Maps are among the most
the location of their quarry, early explorers beautiful and useful documents of human
lived or died by their knowledge of geogra- civilization, and spatial information has a
phy, and current societies work and play great impact on our lives by helping us pro-
based on their understanding of who duce the food we eat, the energy we burn,
belongs where. Applied geography, in the the clothes we wear, and the diversions we
form of maps and spatial information, has enjoy.
served discovery, planning, cooperation,

Figure 1-1: A map of the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, most probably by Clement Lempiere, published
in 1733. The river mouth is in the center, New Brunswick lower center, and Quebec across the top. Early
maps were key to exploration (courtesy U.S. Library of Congress).
2 GIS Fundamentals

Because spatial information is so bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. A GIS quanti-

important, we have developed tools called fies these locations by recording their coor-
geographic information systems (GIS) to aid dinates, numbers that describe the position
us with geographic knowledge. A GIS helps of these features on Earth. The GIS may also
us gather and use spatial data (we will use be used to record the height of Mount Ever-
the abbreviation GIS to refer to both singu- est, the population of Pierre, or the depth of
lar, system, and plural, systems). Some GIS the Titanic, as well as any other defining
components are purely technological; these characteristics of each spatial feature.
include space-age data collectors, advanced
communications networks, and sophisticated
computing. Other GIS components are very What is a GIS?
simple, for example, a pencil and paper used A GIS is a tool for making and using
to field-verify a map. spatial information. Among the many defini-
As with many aspects of life in the last tions of GIS, we choose:
five decades, how we gather and use spatial A GIS is a computer-based system to aid
data has been profoundly altered by modern in the collection, maintenance, storage,
electronics, and GIS software and hardware analysis, output, and distribution of spa-
are primary examples of these technological tial data and information.
developments. The capture and analysis of
When used wisely, GIS can help us live
spatial data has accelerated over the past
healthier, wealthier, and safer lives.
four decades, and continues to evolve.
Each GIS user may decide what features
Key to all definitions of a GIS are
are important, and what attributes are worth
“where” and “what.” GIS record the abso-
recording. For example, forests are import-
lute and relative location of features, as well
ant to many of us. They may protect water
as the properties and attributes of those fea-
supplies, yield wood, harbor wildlife, and
tures. Mount Everest is in Asia, Timbuktu is
provide space to recreate (Figure 1-2).
in Mali, and the cruise ship Titanic is at the

Figure 1-2: GIS allow us to analyze important geographic features. The satellite image at the center shows
a forested area in western Oregon, with a patchwork of lakes, forests, clearings, alpine zones, and deserts. A
GIS may aid in ensuring sustainable recreation, timber harvest, environmental protection, and other benefits
(courtesy NASA).
Chapter 1: Introduction 3

We are concerned about the level of harvest, addressing some of our most pressing socie-
the adjacent land use, pollution from nearby tal problems.
industries, or where forests burn. Informed GIS tools in aggregate save billions of
management requires knowledge of all these dollars annually in the delivery of govern-
related factors and, perhaps above all, the mental and commercial goods and services.
spatial arrangement of these factors. Buffer GIS regularly help in the day-to-day man-
strips near rivers may protect water supplies, agement of many natural and man-made
clearings may prevent the spread of fire, and resources, including sewer, water, power,
polluters downwind may not harm our for- and transportation networks. GIS are at the
ests while polluters upwind might. A GIS heart of one of the most important processes
helps us analyze these spatial interactions, in U.S. democracy, the constitutionally man-
and is also particularly useful at displaying dated reshaping of U.S. congressional dis-
spatial data and analysis. A GIS is often the tricts, and hence the distribution of tax
only way to solve spatially-related problems. dollars and other government resources.
GIS are needed in part because human
Why We Need GIS populations and consumption have reached
GIS are essential tools in business, gov- levels such that many resources, including
ernment, education, and nonprofit organiza- air and land, are placing substantial limits on
tions, and GIS use has become mandatory in human action (Figure 1-3). Human popula-
many settings. GIS have been used to fight tions have doubled in the last 50 years, sur-
crime, protect endangered species, reduce passing 7 billion, and we will likely add
pollution, cope with natural disasters, treat another 4 billion humans in the next 50
epidemics, and improve public health; in years. The first 100,000 years of human
short, GIS have been instrumental in existence caused scant impacts on the
world’s resources, but in the past 300 years
humans have permanently altered most of

Figure 1-3: Human population growth during the past 400 years has increased the need for
efficient resource use (courtesy United Nations and Ikonos).
4 GIS Fundamentals

the Earth’s surface. The atmosphere and example of the importance of geography in
oceans exhibit a decreasing ability to resource management. The ESA requires
benignly absorb carbon dioxide and nitro- adequate protection of rare and threatened
gen, two primary waste products of human- organisms. Effective protection entails map-
ity. Silt chokes many rivers, and there are ping the available habitat and analyzing spe-
abundant examples of smoke, ozone, or cies range and migration patterns. The
other noxious pollutants substantially harm- location of viable remnant plant and animal
ing public health. By the end of the 20th cen- populations relative to current and future
tury, most lands south of the boreal region human land uses must be analyzed, and
had been farmed, grazed, cut, built over, action taken to ensure species survival. GIS
drained, flooded, or otherwise altered by have proven to be useful tools in all of these
humans (Figure 1-4). tasks. GIS use is mandated in other endeav-
GIS help us identify and address envi- ors, including emergency services, flood
ronmental problems by providing crucial protection, disaster assessment and manage-
information on where problems occur and ment (Figure 1-5), and infrastructure devel-
who are affected by them. GIS help us iden- opment.
tify the source, location, and extent of Public organizations have adopted GIS
adverse environmental impacts, and may because of legislative mandates, and because
help us devise practical plans for monitor- GIS aid in governmental functions. For
ing, managing, and mitigating environmen- example, emergency service vehicles are
tal damage. regularly dispatched and routed using GIS.
Human impacts on the environment E911 callers and addresses are automatically
have spurred a strong societal push for the identified by telephone number. The GIS
adoption of GIS. Conflicts in resource use, matches the address to the nearest emer-
concerns about pollution, and precautions to gency service station, a route is then imme-
protect public health have led to legislative diately generated based on the street network
mandates that explicitly or implicitly require and traffic, and emergency crews dispatched
the consideration of geography. The U.S. from the nearest station.
Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA) is an

Figure 1-4: The environmental impacts wrought by humans have accelerated in many parts of the world
during the past century. These satellite images from 2000 (upper left) to 2013 (lower right) show a
shrunken Aral Sea due to the overuse of water. Diversion for irrigation has destroyed a rich fishery, the
economic base for many seaside communities. GIS may be used to document change, mitigate damage,
and effectively manage our natural resources (courtesy NASA).
Chapter 1: Introduction 5

June 23, 2004 Dec. 28, 2004

Figure 1-5: GIS may aid in disaster assessment and recovery. These satellite images from Banda Aceh,
Indonesia, illustrate tsunami-caused damage to a shoreline community. Emergency response and longer-
term rebuilding efforts may be improved by spatial data collection and analysis (courtesy DigitalGlobe).

Many businesses adopt GIS for outdoor position to within a few meters.
increased efficiency in the delivery of goods Remarkable positioning technologies, gener-
and services. Retail businesses locate stores ically known as Global Navigation Satellite
based on a number of spatially related fac- Systems (GNSS), are now indispensable
tors. Where are the potential customers? tools in commerce, planning, and safety.
What is the spatial distribution of competing The technological pull has developed on
businesses? Where are potential new store several fronts. Spatial analysis in particular
locations? What are traffic flows near cur- has been helped by faster computers with
rent stores, and how easy is it to park near more storage, and by the increased intercon-
and access these stores? GIS are also used in nectedness via WiFi and mobile networks.
hundreds of other business applications, to Most real-world spatial problems were
route delivery vehicles, guide advertising, beyond the scope of all but the largest gov-
design buildings, plan construction, and sell ernment and business organizations until the
real estate. 1990s. GIS computing expenses are becom-
The societal push to adopt GIS has been ing an afterthought, as computing resources
complemented by a technological pull in the often cost less than a few weeks’ salary for a
development and application of GIS. Thou- qualified GIS professional.Costs decrease
sands of lives and untold wealth have been and performance increases at dizzying rates,
lost because ship captains could not answer with predicted plateaus pushed back each
the simple question, “Where am I?” Robust year. Powerful field computers are lighter,
nautical navigation methods emerged in the faster, more capable, and less expensive, so
18th century, and have continually improved spatial data display and analysis capabilities
since, so that anyone can quickly locate their may always be at hand (Figure 1-6).
6 GIS Fundamentals

GIS on rugged, field-portable computers has

been particularly useful in field data entry
and editing.
In addition to the computing improve-
ments and the development of GNSS, cur-
rent “cameras” deliver amazingly detailed
aerial and satellite images. Initially,
advances in image collection and interpreta-
tion were spurred by World War II and then
the Cold War because accurate maps were
required, but unavailable. Turned toward
peacetime endeavors, imaging technologies
now help us map food and fodder, houses
and highways, and most other natural and
human-built objects. Images may be rapidly
converted to accurate spatial information
over broad areas (Figure 1-7). Many tech-
niques have been developed for extracting
information from image data, and also for
ensuring this information faithfully rep- Figure 1-6: Portable computing is one example
of the technological pull driving GIS adoption
resents the location, shape, and characteris- (courtesy Cogent3D, www.GISRoam.com).
tics of features on the ground. Visible light,
laser, thermal, and radar scanners are cur-
rently being developed to further increase
the speed and accuracy with which we map
our world. Thus, advances in these three key
technologies — imaging, GNSS, and com-
puting — have substantially aided the devel-
opment of GIS.

Figure 1-7: Images taken from aircraft and satellites (left) provide a rich source of data, which may be
interpreted and converted to information about the Earth’s surface (right).
Chapter 1: Introduction 7

GIS in Action tion and progress. Position data were down-

loaded from the field devices to a field GIS
Spatial data organization, analyses, and center, and frequently updated maps were
delivery are widely applied to improve life. produced. On-site incident managers used
Here we describe examples that demonstrate these maps to evaluate areas that had been
how GIS are in use. searched, and to plan subsequent efforts in
Marvin Matsumoto was saved with the real time. Accurate maps showed exactly
help of GIS. The 60-year-old hiker became what portions of the park had been searched
lost in Joshua Tree National Park, a 300,000- and by what method. Appropriate teams
hectare desert landscape famous for its dis- were tasked to unvisited areas. Ground
tinct and rugged terrain. Between six and crews could be assigned to areas that had
eight hikers become lost there in a typical been searched by helicopters, but contained
year, sometimes fatally so. Because of the vegetation or terrain that limited visibility
danger of hypothermia, dehydration, and from above. Marvin was found on the fifth
death, the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) day, alive but dehydrated and with an injured
organizes search and rescue operations that skull and back from a fall. The search team
include foot patrols, horseback, vehicle, and was able to radio its precise location to a res-
helicopter searches (Figure 1-8). cue helicopter. Another day in the field and
The search and rescue operation for Mr. Marvin likely would have died, a day saved
Matsumoto was organized and guided using by the effective use of GIS.
GIS. Search and rescue teams carried field
positioning devices that recorded team loca-

Figure 1-8: Search and rescue

operations, such as the one for
Marvin Matsumoto (upper left,
inset), are spatial activities.
Searchers must combine informa-
tion on where the lost person was
last seen, likely routes of travel,
maps of the areas already
searched, time last searched, and
available resources to effectively
mount a search campaign (cour-
tesy Tom Patterson, USNPS).
8 GIS Fundamentals

GIS are also widely used in planning waters, reducing the beauty and value of the
and environmental protection. Oneida lakes and nearby properties.
County is located in northern Wisconsin, a In response to this problem, Oneida
forested area characterized by exceptional County, the Sea Grant Institute of the Uni-
scenic beauty. The county is in a region with versity of Wisconsin, and the Land Informa-
among the highest concentrations of fresh- tion and Computer Graphics Facility of the
water lakes in the world, a region that is also University of Wisconsin have developed a
undergoing a rapid expansion in the perma- Shoreland Management GIS Project. This
nent and seasonal human populations. Retir- project helps protect valuable nearshore and
ees, urban exiles, and vacationers are lake resources, and provides an example of
increasingly drawn to the scenic and recre- how GIS tools are used for water resource
ational amenities available in Oneida management (Figure 1-9).
County. Permanent county population grew
by nearly 30% from 1990 to 2010, and the Oneida County has revised zoning and
seasonal influx almost doubles the total other ordinances to protect shoreline and
county population each summer. lake quality, and to ensure compliance with-
out undue burden on landowners. The
Population growth has caused a boom county uses GIS technology in the mainte-
in construction and threatened the lakes that nance of property records. Property records
draw people to the county. A growing num- include information on the owner, tax value,
ber of building permits are for nearshore and any special zoning considerations. The
houses, hotels, or businesses. Seepage from county uses these digital records when creat-
septic systems, runoff from fertilized lawns, ing parcel maps; processing sale, subdivi-
or erosion and sediment from construction sion, or other parcel transactions; and
all decrease lake water quality. Increases in integrating new data such as aerial or boat-
lake nutrients or sediment may lead to turbid

Figure 1-9: Parcel information entered in a GIS may substantially improve government services. Here,
images of the shoreline taken from lake vantage points are combined with digital maps of the shoreline,
buildings, and parcel boundaries. The image in the lower left was obtained from the location shown as a
light dot near the center of the figure (courtesy Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute and LICGF).
Chapter 1: Introduction 9

Figure 1-10: GIS may be used to streamline government function. Here, septic systems not compliant
with pollution prevention ordinances are identified by light circles (courtesy Wisconsin Sea Grant
Institute and LICGF).

based images to help detect property

changes and zoning violations.
GIS may also be used to administer
shoreline zoning ordinances, or to notify
landowners of routine tasks, such as septic
system maintenance. Northern lakes are par-
ticularly susceptible to nutrient pollution
from nearshore septic systems (Figure 1-10).
Timely maintenance of each septic system
must be verified. The GIS can automatically
identify owners out of compliance and gen-
erate an appropriate notification.
GIS has helped the U.S. Fish and Wild-
life Service manage the recovery of the Gray
Wolf (Canis lupus) in the lower 48 states of
the United States. Wolves were hunted to a
remnant population in northern Minnesota.
Given protection in 1974, the population has
rebounded to nearly 6,000 wolves that are
spread across at least 11 states. GIS helped
in many phases of the recovery, including
identifying suitable habitat, monitoring pack
location through time, mapping prey abun-
dance and areas of high potential conflict Figure 1-11: A gray wolf, one of a few success-
with humans due to land use (e.g., ranching), fully recovered endangered species, restored with
the help of GIS (courtesy Spinus Art Photos).
assessing the impacts of range recovery on
10 GIS Fundamentals

information on habitat occupancy, move-

ment rates, hunting vs. resting time, optimal
denning sites, and dispersal. More data are
provided in a few weeks by these satellite
tracking collars than were possible with a
decade of collection using the older, radio-
based technologies they replaced.
Scientists at the Voyageurs Wolf Project
have been tracking wolves to better under-
stand their behavior (Figure 1-13). Part of
wolf recovery and de-listing may include
hunting and trapping seasons in some areas.
Harvest isn’t allowed in U.S. National Parks,
but may be on adjacent lands, e.g., State and
National Forests. Removing pack members
Figure 1-12: Wolf recovery involved tranquil-
izing and fitting wolves with tracking collars. may affect a pack’s ability to group hunt,
These provide detailed location and movement reproduce, or defend their territory. Wolves
data, and a better understanding of wolf habitat may respond to hunting pressure by moving
requirements (courtesy NPS).
further into parks, in turn displacing adjacent
packs. Analysis of pack location and move-
other resources (deer and other game), and ments during trial hunting and trapping may
natural limits to range expansion help guide a sustainable recovery.
Relatively new spatial data capture GIS are widely used to improve public
technologies are used to help in wolf recov- health. Air pollution is a major cause of sick-
ery. Animals are tranquilized, fitted with sat- ness and death, primarily from nitrogen and
ellite tracking collars, and released (Figure sulfur dioxides, carbon monoxide, ozone,
1-13). These collars may create an hour by and small particles from oil, gas, coal, and
hour record of wolf location, giving precise

Figure 1-13: Spatial data, such as the recorded pack locations and home ranges (circles and polygons,
respectively), may be combined to help understand how best to manage the Gray Wolf (courtesy Voya-
geurs Wolf Project).
Chapter 1: Introduction 11

Figure 1-14: Air pollu-

tion from power plants
and vehicles is still a
significant health hazard
(courtesy M. Riya and
the State of California).

wood combustion. Primary sources are map exposures both over broader areas and
power generation, factories, and transpora- at increasing level of spatial detail.
tion (Figure 1-14). Small particles lodge in Air pollution may be mapped from sat-
the lungs , causing inflammation and reduc- ellites, as the chemicals and particles change
ing lung function (Figure 1-15). Alveolar the optical properties of air (Figure 1-16,
macrophages attempt to isolate this material, top). A number of satellite instruments, cul-
but air pollution levels commonly exceed the minating in the Ozone Mapping and Profil-
lung’s capacity for self-cleaning. Damaging ing Suite (OMPS), have been launched over
particle concentrations are typically higher the past 30 years to record air quality. Pains-
in urban areas, or near traffic, power plants, taking engineering, testing, and comparison
and other pollution sources. GIS helps map to ground and airborne measurements have
concentrations, identify sources, and plan verified instrument accuracies. This has led
improvements. Air pollution shaves 10 years
off of the life span of about 200,000 people
in the United States each year, and is respon-
sible for the death of 7 million people world-
wide each year. It also causes increased
sickness, hospitalization, and medical costs
that annually reach into the billions of dol-
lars. A reduction in air pollution has been
shown to significantly reduce hospitaliza-
tion, childhood asthma, and to increase life
Reducing sickness and death requires
identifying areas of high exposure, particu-
larly for vulnerable populations. Effective
management requires an estimate of how
much a decrease in pollution will increase Figure 1-15:: Small air pollution particles (dark
spots, above) lodge in lungs and cause life-long
health. Scientists have focused on these damage (courtesy Nephron).
questions over the past decades, and can
12 GIS Fundamentals

Figure 1-16: Scientists at NASA have developed methods to map air pollution across continents on
a daily basis, which may be averaged to estimate chronic exposure (top). These spatial data may be
combined with studies on human response to air pollution (bottom) and the location of vulnerable
populations to improve public health and reduce medical costs.
Chapter 1: Introduction 13

to a long-term record of pollutant concentra- helped estimate the increase in life expec-
tions, and improved understanding of the tancy with a decrease in air pollution. Legis-
sources and dynamics of pollutants across lation passed in the 1970s resulted in a
regional through global geographies. These measurable improvement in air quality
data allow measurement of peak and chronic across the United States. Progress has been
exposure to pollutants for different popula- variable across the country, with some popu-
tions. They show persistent areas of high lations seeing larger reductions. Scientists
exposure (Figure 1-16), some concentrated measured the decrease in death rates in com-
in cities, largely due to automobile traffic, parable populations, and estimated an aver-
and others over large areas, e.g., the Mid- age 2-year increase in life span for each 10
west, due to large coal-fired power plants μg-m-3 reduction in exposure (Figure 1-16,
and industrial sources. Some areas are par- bottom).
ticularly prone to high concentrations due to Additional work has focused on air pol-
surrounding highlands, e.g., the Central Val- lution at greater geographic detail, in part to
ley of California or Salt Lake City, Utah. better quantify and manage individual expo-
Work by health scientists has identified sure and risk. Dr. Julian Marshall and collab-
the specific impacts of air pollution by ana- orators at the University of Minnesota have
lyzing response in target populations. developed systems to sample pollutant con-
Increased rates of asthma, lung damage, and centrations at very fine spatial intervals,
death observed in smaller studies or individ- towing an air sampling system behind a
ual cities can be expanded to broader areas bicycle through a range of traffic densities,
through the combination of data in GIS. For road types, and neighborhoods (Figure 1-
example, combining health and population 17). Satellite positioning was synchronized
data with satellite exposure records has with video and air samples, and these com-

Figure 1-17: Towable samplers help measure air pollution for individual streets, at various traffic densi-
ties and types (courtesy J. Marshall).
14 GIS Fundamentals

bined with spatial data on road networks,

population density, land use, and other fac-
tors. Statistical models were then developed.
These allow detailed estimates of pollutant
concentrations, even down to the individual
street (Figure 1-18). Such estimates may in
turn help reduce air pollution, plan bicycle
or pedestrian corridors, separate the pollut-
ant loadings due to cars vs. trucks, buses or
other large vehicles, and manage traffic or
infrastructure to reduce human exposure.

Figure 1-18: Fine-detailed spatial estimates

of particulate air pollutants (courtesy J. Mar-
Chapter 1: Introduction 15

GIS Components
A GIS is composed of hardware, soft- to each space we are analyzing in our geo-
ware, data, humans, and a set of organiza- graphical analysis. Even simple operations
tional protocols. These components must be may take substantial time on general-pur-
well integrated for effective use of GIS, and pose computers when run over large areas,
the development and integration of these and complex operations can be unbearably
components is an iterative, ongoing process. long-running. While advances in computing
The selection and purchase of hardware and technology during the past decades have
software is often the easiest and quickest substantially reduced the time required for
step in the development of a GIS. Data col- most spatial analyses, computation times are
lection and organization, personnel develop- still unacceptably long for a few applica-
ment, and the establishment of protocols for tions.
GIS use are often more difficult and time- While most computers and other hard-
consuming endeavors. ware used in GIS are general-purpose and
adaptable for a wide range of tasks, there are
Hardware for GIS also specialized hardware components that
are specifically designed for use with spatial
A fast computer, large data storage data. GIS require large volumes of data that
capacities, and a high-quality, large display must be entered to define the shape and loca-
form the hardware foundation of most GIS tion of geographic features, such as roads,
(Figure 1-19). A fast computer is required rivers, and parcels. Specialized equipment,
because spatial analyses are often applied described in Chapters 4 and 5, has been
over large areas and/or at high spatial resolu- developed to aid in these data entry tasks.
tions. Calculations often have to be repeated
over tens of millions of times, corresponding

Figure 1-19: GIS are typically used with a number of general-purpose and specialized hardware
16 GIS Fundamentals

GIS Software Alumni from Harvard included these in

commercial products, and have developed
GIS software provides the tools to man- additional methods and integrated new aca-
age, analyze, and effectively display and dis- demic research in the five decades since.
seminate spatial information (Figure 1-20).
GIS by necessity involves the collection and
manipulation of coordinates. We also must Open Geospatial Consortium
collect qualitative or quantitative informa-
We will briefly cover the most common
tion on the nonspatial attributes of geo-
GIS software, but first wish to introduce the
graphic features. We need tools to view and
Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC). Their
edit these data, manipulate them to generate
efforts have eased sharing across various
and extract the information we require, and
GIS softwares and computer operating sys-
produce the materials to communicate the
tems. Standards for data formats, documen-
information we have developed. GIS soft-
tation, program interactions, and
ware provides the specific tools for some or
transmission have been developed and pub-
all of these tasks.
lished (www.opengeospatial.org), and lists
There are many public domain and com- of standards-compliant software compiled.
mercially available GIS software packages, While some data structures remain opaque
and many of these packages originated at or proprietary, most have become open, and
academic or government-funded research common standards ease community adop-
laboratories. The Environmental Systems tion, reduce barriers to switching among
Research Institute (ESRI) line of products, softwares, or adopting multiple geospatial
including ArcGIS, is a good example. Much processing packages. Compliance with the
of the foundation for early ESRI software standards is a plus from a user’s perspective,
was developed during the 1960s and 1970s so a quick review of the OGC-compliant list
at Harvard University in the Laboratory of is recommended when selecting a software
Computer Graphics and Spatial Analysis. platform.

Figure 1-20: Functions commonly provided by GIS software.

Chapter 1: Introduction 17

Our software descriptions include the QGIS

most widely used software packages, but are
not all-inclusive. There are many additional QGIS is an open-source software proj-
software tools and packages available, par- ect, an initiative under the Open Source
ticularly for specialized tasks or subject Geospatial Foundation. The software is a
areas. collaborative effort by a community of
developers and users. QGIS is free, stable,
changes smoothly through time, with the
ArcGIS source code available so that it can be
extended as needed for specific tasks. It pro-
ArcGIS, in its various online, desktop,
vides a graphical user interface, supports a
and server versions, comprises the most pop-
wide variety of data types and formats, and
ular GIS software suite at the time of this
runs on Unix, MacOSX, and Microsoft Win-
writing. ESRI, the developer of ArcGIS, has
dows operating systems. As with most open-
a worldwide presence. ESRI has been pro-
source software, the original offering had
ducing GIS software since the early 1980s,
limited capabilities. With an average of
and ArcGIS is its most recent and well-
approximately two updates a year since
developed integrated GIS package. In addi-
2002, QGIS provides a large number of
tion to software, ESRI also provides sub-
basic GIS display and analysis functions. An
stantial training, support, and fee-
interface has been developed with GRASS,
consultancy services at regional and interna-
another open-source GIS with complemen-
tional offices.
tary analytical functions, but that lacks as
ArcGIS is designed to provide a large straightforward a graphical user interface.
set of geoprocessing procedures, from data
entry through analysis to most forms of data
output. As such, ArcGIS is a large, complex, GeoMedia
sophisticated product. It supports multiple GeoMedia and related products are the
data formats, many data types and structures, popular GIS suite from Hexagon Geospatial.
and literally thousands of possible opera- GeoMedia offers a complete set of data
tions that may be applied to spatial data. It is entry, analysis, and output tools. A compre-
not surprising that substantial training is hensive set of editing tools may be pur-
required to master the full capabilities of chased, including those for automated data
ArcGIS. entry and error detection, data development,
ArcGIS provides wide flexibility in how data fusion, complex analyses, and sophisti-
we conceptualize and model geographic fea- cated data display and map composition.
tures. Geographers and other GIS-related GeoMedia is particularly adept at inte-
scientists have conceived of many ways to grating data from divergent sources, formats,
think about, structure, and store information and platforms. Intergraph appears to have
about spatial objects. ArcGIS provides for dedicated substantial effort toward the
the broadest available selection of these rep- OpenGIS initiative, a set of standards to
resentations. For example, elevation data facilitate cross-platform and cross-software
may be stored in at least four major formats, data sharing. Data in any of the common
each with attendant advantages and disad- commercial databases may be integrated
vantages. There is equal flexibility in the with spatial data from many formats. Image,
methods for spatial data processing. This coordinate, and text data may be combined.
broad array of choices, while responsible for
the large investment in time required for GeoMedia also provides a comprehen-
mastery of ArcGIS, provides concomitantly sive set of tools for GIS analyses. Complex
substantial analytical power. spatial analyses may be performed, includ-
ing queries, for example, to find features in
the database that match a set of conditions,
18 GIS Fundamentals

and spatial analyses such as proximity or also providing a large suite of spatial data
overlap between features. World Wide Web analysis and display functions.
and mobile phone applications are well sup- Idrisi has adopted a number of very
ported. simple data structures, a characteristic that
makes the software easy to modify. Some of
MapInfo these structures, while slow and more space-
demanding, are easy to understand and
MapInfo is a comprehensive set of GIS manipulate for the beginning programmer.
products developed by the MapInfo Corpo- The space and speed limitations have
ration, but now a part of Pitney Bowes. Map- become less relevant with improved comput-
Info products are used in a broad array of ers. File formats are well documented and
endeavors, although use seems to be concen- data easy to access. The developers of Idrisi
trated in many business and municipal appli- have expressly encouraged researchers, stu-
cations. This may be due to the ease with dents, and users to create new functions for
which MapInfo components are incorpo- Idrisi. Idrisi is an ideal package for teaching
rated into other applications. Data analysis students both to use GIS and to develop their
and display components are supported own spatial analysis functions.
through a range of higher language func-
tions, allowing them to be easily embedded A suite of tools for earth system model-
in other programs. In addition, MapInfo pro- ing has been developed on the Idrisi plat-
vides a flexible, stand-alone GIS product form, and combined in the Tereset software
that may be used to solve many spatial anal- system. Functions include land change mod-
ysis problems. eling, habitat and biodiversity modeling, and
climate change adaptation.
Specific products have been designed
for the integration of mapping into various
classes of applications. For example, Map- Manifold
Info products have been developed for Manifold is a relatively inexpensive GIS
embedding maps and spatial data into wire- package with a surprising number of capa-
less handheld devices such as telephones, bilities. Manifold combines GIS and some
data loggers, or other portable devices. Prod- remote sensing capabilities. Basic spatial
ucts have been developed to support internet data entry and editing support are provided,
mapping applications, and serve spatial data as well as projections, basic vector and raster
in World Wide Web-based environments. analysis, image display and editing, and out-
Extensions to specific database products put. The program is extensible through a
such as Oracle are provided. series of software modules. Modules are
available for surface analysis, business
Idrisi applications, internet map development and
serving, database support, and advanced
Idrisi is a GIS system developed by the analyses.
Graduate School of Geography of Clark
University, in Massachusetts. Idrisi differs Manifold GIS has focused on rapid
from the previously discussed GIS software computations for large spatial databases,
packages in that it provides both image pro- and in providing sophisticated image editing
cessing and GIS functions. Image data are capabilities in a spatially referenced frame-
useful as a source of information in GIS. work. Portions of images and maps may be
There are many specialized software pack- cut and pasted into other maps while main-
ages designed specifically to focus on image taining proper geographic alignment. Trans-
data collection, manipulation, and output. parency, color-based selection, and other
Idrisi offers much of this functionality while capabilities common to image editing pro-
grams are included in Manifold GIS.
Chapter 1: Introduction 19

AUTOCAD MAP 3D view spatial data, software to create digital

atlases, and software to publish and serve
AUTOCAD is the world’s largest-sell- data on the internet.
ing computer drafting and design package.
Produced by Autodesk, Inc. of San Rafael, TNTmips is notable both for its breadth
California, AUTOCAD began as an engi- of tools and the range of hardware platforms
neering drawing and printing tool. A broad supported in a uniform manner. MicroIm-
range of engineering disciplines are sup- ages recompiles a basic set of code for each
ported, including surveying and civil engi- platform so that the look, feel, and function-
neering. Surveyors have traditionally ality is nearly identical irrespective of the
developed and maintained the coordinates hardware platform used. Image processing,
for property boundaries, and these are spatial data analysis, and image, map, and
among the most important and often-used data output are supported uniformly across
spatial data. AUTOCAD MAP 3D adds sub- this range.
stantial analytical capability to the already TNTmips provides an impressive array
complete set of data input, coordinate of spatial data development and analysis
manipulation, and data output tools provided tools. Common image processing tools are
by AUTOCAD. available, including support of a broad num-
ber of file formats, image registration and
GRASS mosaics, reprojection, error removal, subset-
ting, combination, and image classification.
GRASS, the Geographic Resource Vector and raster analyses are supported,
Analysis Support System, is a free, open- including multi-layer combination, view-
source GIS that runs on many platforms. The shed, proximity, and network analyses.
system was originally developed by the U.S. Extensive online documentation is available,
Army Construction Engineering Research and the software is supported by an interna-
Laboratory (CERL), starting in the early tional network of dealers.
1980s, when much GIS software was limited
in access and applications. CERL followed
an open approach to development and distri- ERDAS
bution, leading to substantial contributions ERDAS (Earth Resources Data Analysis
by a number of university and other govern- System) – now owned and developed by
ment labs. Development was discontinued Hexagon Geospatial, a division of Intergraph
by the military, and taken up by an open- – began as an image processing system. The
source “GRASS Development Team,” a self- original purpose of the software was to enter
identified group of people donating their and analyze satellite image data. ERDAS led
time to maintain and enhance GRASS. The a wave of commercial products for analyz-
software provides a broad array of raster and ing spatial data collected over large areas.
vector operations, and is used in both Product development was spurred by the
research and applications worldwide. successful launch of the U.S. Landsat satel-
Detailed information and the downloadable lite in the 1970s. For the first time, digital
software are available at http://grass.itc.it/ images of the entire Earth surface were
index.php. available to the public.
The ERDAS software evolved to
MicroImages include a comprehensive set of tools for cell-
MicroImages produces TNTmips, an based data analysis. Image data are supplied
integrated remote sensing, GIS, and CAD in a cell-based format. The “checkerboard”
software package. MicroImages also pro- format used for image data may also be used
duces and supports a range of other related to store and manipulate other spatial data.
products, including software to edit and
20 GIS Fundamentals

ERDAS and most other image process- industry-specific tools, including mining and
ing packages provide data output formats power generation systems and networks.
that are compatible with most common GIS
packages. Many image processing software
systems are purchased explicitly to provide SuperMap
data for a GIS. The support of ESRI data for- SuperMap is a Hong Kong based com-
mats is particularly thorough in ERDAS. pany that provides a broad range of GIS soft-
ERDAS GIS components can be used to ware, including desktop, cloud-based,
analyze these spatial data. vector, raster, and 3D analysis. Subsystems
and configurations have been developed and
applied for land records and information
management, facilities management, gov-
ENVI is another GIS software package ernment economic and statistical services
with origins in digital image processing. Par- and support, municipalities, and emergency
ticular emphasis has been placed on tools for response management. It provides excellent
developing and managing elevation data support of Japanese, Korean, and Chinese
from satellites and airborne platforms, crop languages, and has among the largest market
monitoring, and automated feature shares in East Asia.
extraction. This last capability streamlines
the identification of individual objects, such
as buildings, trees, road segments, or water Spatial R, Python, and GDAL
bodies. Recent updates have focused on Generic programing, processing, and
tools for processing images from small, statistical analysis tools may be combined to
unmanned aerial drones. provide most GIS functions, and include
newer analytical methods not available in
common commercial packages. R is an open
Bentley Map
source software project with many spatial
Bentley Systems has developed spatial packages. These support a rich set of spatial
analysis software for mobile device through operations, particularly for spatial estima-
enterprise levels, with a strong focus on flex- tion. Python is a general-purpose program-
ible, integrated infrastructure design and ing language with several available spatial
development. Although its origins are as a libraries. Notable among them are Shapely,
computer-assisted drafting and design pro- Geopandas, and pySAL, containing a large
gram, Bentley has evolved into a general set set of spatial functions. GDAL is a standard
of tools, including field data collection, pho- set of spatial input/output and data process-
togrammetry, sophisticated map composi- ing functions, which may interfaces with
tion, database management, analysis, and both R and Python. Together, these tools
reporting. support sophisticated GIS analysis.
Bentley products are particularly This review of spatial data software is
focused on the built environment, including incomplete. There are many other software
road, building, utility, and other large con- tools available which provide unique, novel,
struction design, planning, and management. or particularly clever combinations of geo-
Tools include a comprehensive suite for processing functions. Whitebox GAT, Small-
property records, including surveying parcel world, ILWIS, MapWindow, PCI, and
data management, terrain analysis and calcu- qvSIG are just a few additional software
lations for excavation and earthworks, rain- packages with spatial data capabilities. In
fall runoff analysis and drainage design, addition, there are thousands of add-ons,
street and utility layout, and 3D viewing of special-purpose tools, or specific modules
design alternatives. Bentley also supports that complement these products.
Chapter 1: Introduction 21

GIS in Organizations
Although new users often focus on GIS GIS are often employed as decision sup-
hardware and software components, we port tools (Figure 1-21). Data are collected,
must recognize that GIS exist in an institu- entered, and organized into a spatial data-
tional context. Effective use of GIS requires base, and analyses performed to help make
an organization to support various GIS activ- specific decisions. The results of spatial
ities. Most GIS also require trained people to analyses in a GIS often uncover the need for
use them, and a set of protocols guiding how more data, and there are often several itera-
the GIS will be used. The institutional con- tions through the collection, organization,
text determines what spatial data are import- analysis, output, and assessment steps before
ant, how these data will be collected and a final decision is reached. It is important to
used, and ensures that the results of GIS recognize the organizational structure within
analyses are properly interpreted and which the GIS will operate, and how GIS
applied. GIS share a common characteristic will be integrated into the decision-making
of many powerful technologies. If not prop- processes of the organization.
erly used, GIS may lead to a significant
waste of resources, and may do more harm
than good. The proper institutional resources
are required for GIS to provide all its poten-
tial benefits.

Figure 1-21: GIS exist in an institutional context. Effective use of GIS depends on a set of
protocols and an integration into the data collection, analysis, decision, and action loop of an
22 GIS Fundamentals

GIS fit. Because GIS are most often used as

One first question is, “What problem(s) decision support tools, the effective use of
are we to solve with the GIS?” GIS add sig- GIS requires more than the purchase of hard-
nificant analytical power through the ability ware and software. Trained personnel and
to measure distances and areas, identify protocols for use are required if GIS are to
vicinity, analyze networks, and through the be properly applied. GIS may then be incor-
overlay and combination of different infor- porated in the question–collect–analyze–
mation. Unfortunately, spatial data develop- decide loop when solving problems.
ment is often expensive, and effective GIS
use requires specialized knowledge or train- The Structure of This Book
ing, so there is often considerable expense in
constructing and operating a GIS. Before This book is designed to serve a semes-
spending this time and money, there must be ter-long, 15-week course in GIS at the uni-
a clear identification of the new questions versity level. We seek to provide the relevant
that may be answered, or the process, prod- information to create a strong basic founda-
uct, or service that will be improved, made tion on which to build an understanding of
more efficient, or less expensive through the GIS. Because of the breadth and number of
use of GIS. Once the ends are identified, an topics covered, students may be helped by
organization may determine the level of knowledge of how this book is organized.
investment in GIS that is warranted. Chapter 1 (this chapter) sets the stage, pro-
viding some motivation and a background
for GIS. Chapter 2 describes basic data rep-
Summary resentations. It treats the main ways we use
GIS are computer-based systems that aid computers to represent perceptions of geog-
in the development and use of spatial data. raphy, common data structures, and how
There are many reasons we use GIS, but these structures are organized. Chapter 3
most are based on a societal push, our need provides a basic description of coordinates
to more effectively and efficiently use our and coordinate systems, how coordinates are
resources. It also responds to a technological defined and measured on the surface of the
pull, our interest in applying new tools to Earth, and conventions for converting these
previously insoluble problems. GIS as a measurements to coordinates we use in a
technology is based on geographic informa- GIS.
tion science, and is supported by the disci- Chapters 4 through 7 treat spatial data
plines of geography, surveying, engineering, collection and entry. Data collection is often
space science, computer science, cartogra- a substantial task and comprises one of the
phy, statistics, and a number of others. main activities of most GIS organizations.
GIS are composed of both hardware and General data collection methods and equip-
software components. Because of the large ment are described in Chapter 4. Chapter 5
volumes of spatial data and the need to input describes Global Navigation Satellite Sys-
coordinate values, GIS hardware often have tems (GNSS), a common technology for
large storage capacities, fast computing coordinate data collection. Chapter 6
speed, and ability to capture coordinates. describes aerial and space-based images as a
Software for GIS are unique in their ability source of spatial data. Most historical and
to manipulate coordinates and associated contemporary maps depend in some way on
attribute data. A number of software tools image data, and this chapter provides a back-
and packages are available to help us ground on how these data are collected and
develop GIS. used to create spatial data. Chapter 7 pro-
vides a brief description of common digital
While GIS are defined as tools for use data sources available in the United States,
with spatial data, we must stress the impor- their formats, and uses.
tance of the institutional context in which
Chapter 1: Introduction 23

Chapters 8 through 13 treat the analysis how we assess and document spatial data
of spatial data. Chapter 8 focuses on attri- quality, while Chapter 15 provides some
bute data, attribute tables, database design, musings on current conditions and future
and analyses using attribute data. Attributes trends.
are half our spatial data, and a clear under- We give preference to the International
standing of how we structure and use them is System of Units (SI) throughout this book.
key to effective spatial reasoning. Chapters The SI system is adopted by most of the
9, 10, 11, and 12 describe basic spatial anal- world, and is used to specify distances and
yses, including adjacency, inclusion, over- locations in the most common global coordi-
lay, and data combination for the main data nate systems and by most spatial data collec-
models used in GIS. They also describe tion devices. However, some English units
more complex spatio-temporal models. are culturally embedded, for example, the
Chapter 13 describes various methods for survey foot, or 640 acres to a Public Land
spatial prediction and interpolation. We typi- Survey Section, and so these are not con-
cally find it impractical or inefficient to col- verted. Because a large portion of the target
lect “wall-to-wall” spatial and attribute data. audience for this book is in the United
Spatial prediction allows us to extend our States, English units of measure often sup-
sampling and provide information for plement SI units.
unsampled locations. Chapter 14 describes
24 GIS Fundamentals

Suggested Reading

Ballas, D., Clarke, G., Franklin, R.S., Newing, A. (2018). GIS and the Social Sciences: The-
ory and Applications. London: Routledge.

Convis, C.L, Jr. (Ed.). (2001). Conservation Geography: Case Studies in GIS, Computer
Mapping, and Activism. Redlands: ESRI Press.

Day, B., Bruner, J., Moser, A. (2017). Geospatial Data and Analysis. Sebastopol CA:

Dent, B., Torguson, J.S., Hodler, T.W. (2009). Cartography, Thematic Map Design, 6th Edi-
tion. New York: McGraw Hill.

Dodge, M., McDerby, M., Turner, M. (2008). Geographic Visualization: Concepts, Tools, and
Applications. Hoboken: Wiley.

Fotheringham, S., Rogerson, P.A. (2009). The SAGE Handbook of Spatial Analysis. London:

Greene, R.P., Pick, J.B. (2012). Exploring the Urban Community: A GIS Approach. Upper
Saddle River: Prentice Hall.

Haklay, M. (2010). Interacting with Geospatial Technologies. New York: Wiley.

Hankey, S., Marshall, J.D. (2016). Land use regression models of On-road Particulate Air
Pollution (Particulate Number, Black Carbon, PM2.5, Particle Size) Using Mobile Moni-
toring. Environmental Science and Technology, 45:9194-9202.

Johnson, S. (2006). The Ghost Map: the Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic, and
How It Changed Science, Cities, and the World. New York: Riverhead Books.

Kemp, K.K., (Ed.). (2008). Encyclopedia of Geographic Information Science. Los Angeles:

Kouyoumjian, V. (2011). GIS in the Cloud: The New Age of Cloud Computing and Geo-
graphic Information Systems. Redlands: ESRI Press.

Kresse, W. Danko, D. M. (Ed.). (2012). Handbook of Geographic Information. Dordrecht:


Lawrence, P.L. (Ed.). (2013). Geospatial Tools for Urban Water Resources. New York: Dor-

McHarg, I. (1995). Design with Nature. New York: Wiley.

Millspaugh, J.J., Thompson, F.R. III. (2009). Models for Planning Wildlife Conservation in
Large Landscapes. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
Chapter 1: Introduction 25

Mueller, T., Sassenrath, G.F. (2015). GIS Applications in Agriculture, Volume 4: Conservation
Planning. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

National Research Council of the National Academies (2006). Beyond Mapping: Meeting
National Needs through Enhanced Geographic Information Science. Washington D.C.:
National Academies Press.

Peterson, G.N. (2014). GIS Cartography: A Guide to Effective Map Design. Boca Raton: CRC

Petrasova, A., Harmon, B., Petras, V., Mitasova, H. (2015). Tangible Modeling with Open
Sources GIS. New York: Springer.

Shelito, B.A. (2012). Introduction to Geospatial Technologies. New York: W.H. Freeman.

Singleton, A.D., Spielman, S.E., Folch, D.C. (2018). Urban Analytics. Los Angeles: Sage.

de Smith, M.G., Goodchild, M.F., Longley, P.A. (2007). Geospatial Analysis: A Comprehen-
sive Guide to Principles, Techniques, and Software Tools. Leicester: Winchelsea Press.

Theobald, D. M. (2003). GIS Concepts and ArcGIS Methods. Fort Collins: Conservation
Planning Technologies.

Tillman Lyle, J. (1999). Design for Human Ecosystems: Landscape, Land Use, and Natural
Resources. Washington: Island Press.

Wegmann, M., Leutner, B., Dech, S. (2016). Remote Sensing and GIS for Ecologists: Using
Open Source Software. Exeter: Pelagic Publishing.

Wise, S., Craglia, M. (Eds.). (2008). GIS and Evidence-based Policy Making. Boca Raton:
CRC Press.
26 GIS Fundamentals


1.1 - Why are we more interested in spatial data today than 100 years ago?

1.2 - You have probably collected, analyzed, or communicated spatial data in one way
or another during the past month. Describe each of these steps for a specific applica-
tion you have used or observed.

1.3 - How are GIS hardware different from most other hardware?

1.4 - Describe the ways in which GIS software are different from other computer soft-

1.5 - What are the limitations of using a GIS? Under what conditions might the tech-
nology hinder problem solving, rather than help?

1.6 - Are paper maps and paper data sheets a GIS? Why or why not?