GIS & Mapping
Get Started | GIS at AU | Collegial Networking | Open Source | Free GIS Data
What is GIS?
A geographic information system (GIS) is made up of computer models and the tools that are designed to analyze them. These computer models consist of maps, which allow you to analyze about anything you want. With a GIS, you can view and analyze a map by studying its different layers. In the “old times” you could do this with transparencies, by stacking transparencies together (1 layer = 1 transparency). Today, each transparency is replaced by a digital layer and you can superimpose these layers as you wish, using GIS software. A GIS thus allows you to study relationships between different layers and detect causal relationships between different variables. Although transparencies were great for their time, GIS can do so much more. For example, with the help of GIS, you can create dynamic maps that show change over time, you can calculate the shortest path in between points, and you can create predictive models. GIS has been used in many industries for decision-making and policy formulation. It has been prominent in the environmental and agricultural sector (how does climate change affect crops?), but has recently flourished in the business sector (i.e.: where to open a new bakery?) and is rapidly expanding into new sectors such as conflict management (i.e.: crisis mapping). Many organizations such as the World Bank, the World Resources Institute, and the US State Department use GIS for analysis and policy design.
Since GIS has developed exponentially in recent years, many simple-to-use and open-source software are available today. Therefore, you can learn how to create maps quickly and with limited GIS skills. Some examples are ArcGIS Online, Google Earth, Crowdmap, and Open Street Map. If you would like to learn how to manipulate and edit layers, and how to perform more complex analyses in a GIS, you will need to learn how to use more advanced software. One of the most commonly-used proprietary GIS software is ArcGIS (by ESRI), which you can try for free for 60-days (works on PC only; to download a free copy, click here). Once you have a copy of ArcGIS, you can complete several of the free tutorials offered by ESRI. We recommend that you start with Getting Started with GIS.
RSG supports ArcGIS and Google Earth. Our staff is building capacity and is eager to learn about other GIS software and resources used by AU faculty. View tutorials for ArcGIS and Google Earth online or contact RSG to schedule a one-on-one tutorial, which can be customized to your research needs. RSG trainers can also visit your class to lead an in-class introduction tutorial for students.
Some professors at AU are already using GIS for their research projects. Here are some examples:
School of International Service: Professor Gallaher uses GIS in her research on urban change in the DC metropolitan region. She is currently working on a project on condo conversions in Washington DC.
Kogod School of Business: Professor Oetzel’s research focuses on examining how violent conflicts affect the private sector. She is exploring the possibility of using GIS to analyze how the geographic location of conflicts affects businesses (i.e.: are firms in close proximity to a conflict more likely to adopt strategies aimed at directly reducing the conflict and its impact?)
School of Public Affairs: the Justice, Law and Society department is using GIS to create maps that display different criminal case outcomes in US counties.
Other faculty members are another excellent research resource. To facilitate networking, RSG is launching this Fall a group of AU faculty who have an interest in and/or experience using GIS and who want to share their knowledge. This group will occasionally meet to brainstorm events, identify needs, discuss their research projects and create resources to enhance GIS scholarship at AU. If you are interested in joining, please email email@example.com.
· ArcGIS Online (individual subscription; other types of subscription are not free)
· ArcGIS Explorer
· Open Street Map
· OS Geo Live
· GRASS GIS
· MapWindow GIS
· Quantum GIS (QGIS)
Note: Some of the sites will ask you to register/create an account, but the download of data is free.
· Geocommunity: World data: boundaries, roads, cities, etc.
· National Atlas: US data on several topics
· ACLED (Armed Conflict Location and Events Dataset): conflict data - location, data, factions, source of information for many countries; in Excel and shapefile format
· Daymet: climate data
· Global Land Cover by National Mapping Organizations: world land coverage
· Second Administrative Level Boundaries data set project by the UN Geographic Information: subnational data for several countries
· Geodata.gov: US maps and data on various topics
· US Census: US Census shapefiles, which include geographic entity codes that work with census data found on American FactFinder
· American FactFinder (work with US Census files): US demographic and economic data
· FreeGIS.org (descriptions in German): various kind of data
· Free GIS Datasets: physical geography, human geography and individual country/area datasets
· Aquastat: global map of irrigation areas
· AU (computer science department) GIS page: offers links to data, some of which are listed above