Finding your way using GIS

GIS layersIf people are at all familiar with geographic information systems (GIS) software, they typically think of it as a tool for commercial cartographers or for government agencies needing to illustrate dry scientific reports.  But GIS software offers students and researchers in any field (sciences, humanities, and social sciences) a powerful (and often, a remarkably simple) analysis and presentation tool whenever they’re dealing with information that has a locational element.

The Data & GIS Services Department at Perkins Library supports ArcGIS software as well as Google Earth Pro.  The Brandaleone Family Center for Data and GIS Services on the second floor of Perkins Library has this software installed.  ArcGIS software is also site licensed for faculty and staff at Duke, and is available in OIT labs on campus, while basic Google Earth is free to download.  Duke affiliates who want the Pro version of Google Earth can contact Joel Herndon or Mark Thomas.

ArcGIS is great for analyzing any sort of data with a spatial element (for instance: data organized by county; associated with addresses; or containing latitude/longitude coordinates, such as GPS data).

You don’t even have to make a map … you might just want to answer questions about distance (example: what are the closest stores that sell tobacco to each school, and how far are they; or which such stores are within a certain distance from each school), location (example: for a set of crime data, identify the census tract that each crime is in, if you want to study socio-economic characteristics of the neighborhood); or network analysis (example: least-cost routes along roads and rivers to bring logs from tree plantations to mills).  These are only a few of many possibilities (examples reflect real projects done here).

If you do want to build your own map for a paper or publication, ArcGIS is great for creating one that shows just the features you need, starting with a simple basemap and editing or adding more layers to created a customized presentation.

Google Earth has fewer analysis capabilities, but has a short learning curve and a large database of online geographic layers ready to go.  Some sorts of data are easy to add (such as addresses or latitude/longitude coordinates).  The map creation is less customizable than ArcGIS, but there are a lot of options for novel visualization.  Some Duke users, for instance, have found it useful for creating attention-getting maps for poster sessions.

A few of the more focused interactive mapping databases (often dealing only with US Census data) that have GIS analysis or presentation features, or GIS layer download capabilities, include SimplyMap, Social Explorer, National Historic GIS, and Neighborhood Change Database.

2 thoughts on “Finding your way using GIS”

  1. There also some great GIS solutions in the field of open-source, e.g. Quantum GIS, JUMP, etc. Many more can be found at The great thing about these programs is, that they are free of charge, may be adopted to the needs of an institution or person and students can work with them at home without licences.

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