Geographic Information Systems (GIS)

From E-Learning Faculty Modules


Module Summary

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have become more centralized aspects of various types of online learning. GIS is based on geographical world realities and the persistence of landforms and human-made structures in physical space. More recent GIS applications have placed databases of information onto a geographical time-space to enhance analysis and decision-making.



Learners will...

  • Explore what Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are and what these systems do
  • Practice some of the terminology used in GIS systems
  • Study how to use GIS information in online learning situations
  • Visualize some types of information from open-source Geographical Information Systems
  • Name some of the common resources for GIS learning

Module Pretest

1. What are Geographic Information Systems (GIS)? What are the functionalities of GIS systems?

2. What are some common terms used in GIS systems?

3. What sorts of information are available from open-source geographical information systems?

4. How is GIS information used in online learning situations?

5. What are some common resources for GIS learning?

Main Contents

This short module addresses some basic information about GIS systems.

What are Geographic Information Systems (GIS)? What are the functionalities of GIS systems?

The earth sciences focus on the study of the earth, its surface features, and the distribution of human life there. Geographical information is helpful to help people to be aware of their real-time location, in relation to other features of the landscape—whether it is a destination for entertainment (hiking, mountain climbing, forest exploration, and others); work (cave exploration, mining, environmental protection, and mountain rescues); or some combination of human interests.

In that context, a Geographic Information System (GIS) system captures and displays geographically referenced (spatial) information. This information is often displayed on maps or 3D visualizations. Many are meso-scale—such as weather systems. Others are closer-in images down to several square feet of land—with high resolution satellite image captures. These GIS systems comprise integrated hardware, software, and data. Large data repositories are used to manage GIS data, which requires plenty of server space because of the amount of visual and other information.

A formal definition offered by Ryan Bergstrom, Mitch Stimers, and Tom Vought (of the Department of Geography at K-State) in their presentation "Teaching Unconventional Cartography: Learning to Map Sin and Vice and Dealing with the Consequences" defines GIS as follows:

"A geographic information system (GIS) integrates hardware, software, and data for capturing, managing, analyzing, and displaying all forms of geographically referenced information."

Themes: “Thematic maps” allow users to focus on particular “themes”—by layering additional information to a basemap. The added layers may include information on human population (demographics); natural landforms and types / rivers; county land ownership records; roads; underwater aquifers; business types and locations; and other types of data sets. These maps are interactive and will change over time or will change based on the data inputs into the system. The features that change over time are known as “time-enabled features.”

Information layers: Some systems offer value-added information. For example, one depiction of a popular national park offers a tool that identifies potential places for rock-slide hazards for climbers. This same system also depicts a search-and-rescue tool that projects possibly where the theoretical lost climbers may have gone based on the terrain. The various objects in a map contain metadata. Maps may also be overlayed with textual “operational” information in tables and pop-up windows.

Problem solving: Some types of problem-solving may involve the accessing of maps to decide where to start a new business, where to plan a trip, which roads to take to avoid hazards, and maybe how to plan land-use for a farm. Some GIS systems enable decision-making through the provision of information such as helping teams navigate a certain landscape to avoid hazards and to plan for weather systems and daybreak and nightfall.

Collaboration: Some mobile devices that are global positioning system (GPS)-enabled allow people to have real-time awareness of each other’s locations and allows for their mutual sharing of real-time real-space data. (Various real-time games use these technologies.) Others have created geo-caching games where prizes are stored at a certain location, and various individuals and teams strive to get to the caches first…with the ethic of taking a token and leaving something else (in the spirit of the game).

Planning and modeling: Some GIS systems offer 3D visualizations of physical spaces and even allow for the integration of design functions to that space. For example, building footprints may be extruded for a 3D volume for the buildings, and different structures may be conceptualized and modeled in this area for visualization and projection. Many maps offer real-world views, which offer a photorealistic look at a certain scene (both 2D and 3D).

Publishing reports: Users of a GIS system may output their selective maps and overlays in customized ways.

Customization: Some GIS systems offer open APIs (application programming interfaces) which enable the customization of the GIS tool.

Global Positioning Systems (in relation to GIS)

More recent model motor vehicles come with Global Positioning Systems (GPS) systems. These help drivers reach various destinations. It also helps them get a sense of where they are exactly in terms of latitude and longitude. These tools also enable them to receive step-by-step directions on how to get to a particular destination.

Still digital cameras enable photographers to capture “metadata” about where a particular image was captured, so they can locate that down to an exact space on earth and in time.

Mobile devices are often enabled with GPS functions, so people may share their locations live through certain Web 2.0 technologies, including micro-blogging sites. So-called “mobile GIS” allows people to access and send information from and about various physical locations.

What are some common terms used in GIS systems?

Accuracy (n) Conformity to a standard of actual fidelity

Aerial (adj) A view from the air and directly vertically downward

Choropleth map (n) A map with colors that are shaded to a particular depth to show the particular density of the mapped phenomena (such as in public health endeavors to capture the epicenter of an epidemic)

Composite map (n) A map consisting of several maps

Geocache (v) To store some objects at a certain latitude and longitude

Geocoding (n) The act of assigning a location identifier to a spatial location

Geocomputation (n) Applying computer technology to spatial issues; modeling spatial systems and changes over time

Mosaic (n) A mosaic map consists of a number of visual “tiles” that are aligned to create a larger image

Resolution (n) The amount of image detail or clarity

What sorts of information are available from open-source geographical information systems?

GIS datasets are made available by governments and are released to the public domain. These databases often come with visualization tools to interact with the data. For example, government weather sites show weather systems registered on radar moving over a basemap of a location.

State and local police offer maps that show overlays of where certain types of crimes have occurred. Digital governance endeavors involve the interchange of communications via mobile devices and websites: for example, a citizen may take a photograph of a large crack in a sidewalk that needs maintenance and send that in to the city’s maintenance site with the exact location tagged. Or a first responder in charge of recovery after a tornado may drive around the city and collect photographic imagery of the damage and report that to a centralized location for the best deployment of resources. Academics also use GIS datasets for archaeological surveys. Policymakers use land use maps for land use planning. GIS technologies are used for scientific investigations. Criminal investigations often use GIS data. Entrepreneurs and marketers use GIS data to plan and execute new business plans and marketing strategies. War planners use GIS data for warfare assessments.

Commercial GIS features are used in real estate work, where potential home buyers may get a satellite view of a particular locale along with an overlay of the costs of the neighboring houses. Various tourist websites also provide information to help visitors plan certain trips.

GIS maps are captured using satellites which capture a range of visual, energy, heat, and chemical information, in various combinations. Some GIS information comes from sensors on the ground. Some remote sensing information is only held in the realm of privy government information, but much formerly private information now is in the public domain. (Some latitudes and longitudes are considered so sensitive that no remote sensing imagery of them is allowed, even from commercial vendors.)

How is GIS information used in online learning situations?

GIS information is used in a number of fields: geography, landscape architecture, environmental conservation, public health work, and others. Some examples of instructional materials related to GIS are available at ESRI’s site. ESRI also has an educational YouTube Channel at the following location. Students use GIS data for analysis, planning, and design.

What are some common resources for GIS learning?

Most GIS datasets for public use are accessible using desktop or laptop computers that access the database either through a Web browser or a specific software-based interface. Mobile devices like smart phones and laptops may make use of “mobile GIS” functions.

The learning is designed around certain

  • games and physical spaces;
  • changing scenarios for visualization and trend-lining into the future;
  • datasets for analysis and pattern recognition;
  • cases and scenarios for problem-solving;
  • discovery of new information through pattern-recognition (and fresh combinations of
operational information overlays), and 
  • anticipating the effects of a certain policy on a locale and peoples, and others.


How To

Possible Pitfalls

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) information varies depending on the locale. Some areas involve a lot more GIS information resources than others. GIS involves a wide range of complex information, and the learning curve may also be fairly high. The accuracy of GIS data depends on source data, its encoding, and the various operational data available.

Still, there is a lot available for the informal learner. Many who work with GIS systems have offered self-explanatory information via the WWW and Internet to enable exploration.

Module Post-Test

1. What are Geographic Information Systems (GIS)? What are the functionalities of GIS systems?

2. What are some common terms used in GIS systems?

3. What sorts of information are available from open-source geographical information systems?

4. How is GIS information used in online learning situations?

5. What are some common resources for GIS learning?


(This will be forthcoming as more research is done on the topic.)

Extra Resources

Geographic Technology

Using GIS with GPS (ESRI)

Global Positioning System (GIS Development)

[“GPS for GIS Workflow”] (National Park Service)

United States Geological Survey (USGS) Educational Resources

“Selected GPS-Related Websites (USGS Rocky Mountain Mapping Center)

“Geocaching” (in Education) (USGS Rocky Mountain Mapping Center)

USGS Education Map Catalog


USGS Rocky Mountain Mapping Center’s “RockyLink—Links to Spatial Data Resources”

Maps ETC


GeoHive (Global Population Statistics and Maps)

Show World

World Freedom Atlas

Various locales (counties and states, for example) have their own GIS resources to represent the geographical points-of-interest and GIS data relevant for government work.