Introduction to Geographic Information Systems

Knowing something about where something happens can help us to understand what happened, when it happened, how it happened, and why it happened. Whether it is an outbreak of a highly contagious disease, the discovery of a new frog species, the path of a deadly tornado, or the nearest location of a supermarket, knowing something about where things happen is essential to how we understand and relate to our local environment and the world at large.

A geographic information system (GIS) is a particular type of information technology that can help us understand and relate to the “what,” “when,” “how,” and “why” of the world by answering “where.” Geographic information systems are indeed about maps, but they are also about much, much more.

A GIS is used to organize, analyze, visualize, and share all kinds of data and information from different historical periods and at various scales of analysis. From climatologists trying to understand the causes and consequences of global warming, to epidemiologists locating ground zero of a virulent disease outbreak, to archaeologists reconstructing ancient Rome, to political consultants developing campaign strategies for the next presidential election, GIS is a very powerful tool.

More important, GIS is about geography and learning about the world in which we live. As GIS technology develops, as society becomes ever more geospatially enabled, and as more and more people rediscover geography and the power of maps, the future uses and applications of GIS are unlimited.

To take full advantage of the benefits of GIS and related geospatial technology both now and in the future, it is useful to take stock of how we already think spatially concerning the world in which we live. In other words, by recognizing and increasing our geographical awareness about how we relate to our local environment and the world at large, we will benefit more from our use and application of GIS.

The purpose of this chapter is to increase our geographical awareness and to refine our spatial thinking. First, a simple mental mapping exercise is used to highlight our geographical knowledge and spatial awareness, or lack thereof. Second, fundamental concepts and terms that are central to geographic information systems, and more generally, geography, are identified, defined, and explained. This chapter concludes with a description of the frameworks that guide the use and application of GIS, as well as its future development.

Learning Objectives

  • Illustrate how we think geographically and spacially every day with mental maps to highlight the importance of asking geographic questions.
  • Explain how the key concepts of scale, location, direction, distance, space, and navigation are relevant to geography and geographic information systems.
  • Define how a geographic information system is applied, its development, and its future.

Chapter Sections


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Introduction to Geographic Information Systems by R. Adam Dastrup, MA, GISP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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