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Want to do GIS mapping? Here are tips to get started

By Nicole Helgeson, graduate research assistant in GIS mapping

As a graduate research assistant in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping, I often hear comments like this: “I just want to make simple map, but am overwhelmed by everything that I need
to know to get started.”

Nicole Helgeson headshot No wonder people are overwhelmed. When GIS appeared in the 1960s as a simple map coordinate program, few expected that GIS would become such an integral part of everyday life. From transportation to business, from agriculture to health and nutrition, hardly an area today does not use GIS in some way or other. According to the SAGE handbook of GIS and society, what was once a specialized profession of a few has now become more available and accessible than ever.

To help you sort through the massive amount of information, I have put together a list of tips to get started in GIS mapping your research results. Or whatever story you want to tell.

Learn about mapping platforms

Esri is a good place to learn about mapping platforms. Esri is a leader in GIS software and offers several mapping platforms that are easy to use and free to University of Minnesota staff. You have a range of options depending on what your mapping needs are.

Before choosing a mapping platform, think about what you want your finished product to look like. What story do you want a map to tell? Do you want it to be interactive?

Most simple mapping work can be done online. But if you require more advanced analysis tools, or want more control over the map design for printing, you might need some desktop software, like Esri. Or, another option is QGIS, a free and open source software. Note that U-Spatial is an excellent University resource that will help you download GIS software.

Currently, Esri offers the most complete set of tools and several mapping services to choose from:
  • ArcGIS – This is the starting point for making web maps and storing your data. 
  • Story Maps – Combine your maps with text, images and multimedia content. Story Maps use the maps that you create in ArcGIS online.
  • WebAppBuilder for ArcGIS – This is a more advanced tool that lets you create an interactive web map. This also uses the maps you create in ArcGIS online.
Besides Esri, other web-mapping tools include:
  • Google My Maps lets you make simple maps that can be easily shared.
  • Community Commons lets you share data, tools, and stories that work toward creating sustainable communities. 

Format your data properly

This is probably the most time consuming part of creating a map. If you don’t format your data properly, you will waste a lot of time trying to figure out why things do not appear correctly. Using an Excel spreadsheet is one good way to store your data. Get more information about formatting a table in Excel for use in ArcGIS or about mapping Excel data to Google Maps.

Find your data

Obviously, you’ll gather data through your own research. But you will probably need to access public data, too. Sometimes finding data that is both accurate and readily available can be difficult. However, there are some great resources to help you get started.
  • Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS). The IPUMS website provides social, economic, and health research data from around the world. IPUMS is part of the Minnesota Population Center at the University of Minnesota.
  • Minnesota Geospatial Commons. The Minnesota Geospatial Commons is a collaborative place for users and publishers of geospatial resources about Minnesota. The term “geospatial resources” refers to the wide variety of data sources associated with particular geographic locations. Most of the files on this website are in a .shp (shapefile) format and are ready to be mapped.
  • American FactFinder. This tool provides access to data about the United States, Puerto Rico and the island areas. The data in American FactFinder come from several censuses and surveys. It is a great resource for population, housing, economic and geographic information.
  • ArcGIS Online Help. As noted, ArcGIS is a mapping tool offered through Esri. Check the ArcGIS Online Help web page for information on sharing and accessing data. This is an often-overlooked resource, but a great way to search for local, national or international layers of data. With any data you find, be sure to check the source of information and date it was last updated.

Get help

Knowing where to find help online is essential. Here are some resources for getting answers to your GIS questions. Some of these resources also can help you learn faster ways to complete a task.

As noted, U-Spatial is a University resource that offers support for geospatial research. The U-Spatial Help Desk will answer your geospatial questions. Also check U-Spatial’s Training page for information on instructor-led workshops on geospatial tools and technologies.

The Esri catalog is another excellent resource for help with GIS issues. There are hundreds of different options to learn about a variety of topics, including creating a simple web map or story map, learning how to use desktop applications, managing data, and much, much more. Learning formats include webinars, tutorials, documents and seminars. Most of the basic training is free for University staff.

The MapASyst website houses geospatial technology resources of particular use to Cooperative Extension professionals across the country. Resources on MapASyst are focused on outreach and engagement. Check out their Story Maps for inspiration, or their quick and easy mapping tutorials to improve your mapping skills.

These forums can help answer your specific questions or troubleshoot problems with GIS:
  • GeoNet Esri Community. This forum is for GIS newbies and veterans alike. You need to start an Esri account first to sign in.
  • GIS Stack Exchange. This forum is geared to cartographers, geographers, and GIS professionals. But you may find it useful even if you’re new to GIS.
If you need inspiration, there are thousands of examples out there for story maps, web maps and more. Just remember, less is more when it comes to creating maps!

Ready to start?

I hope this information inspires you to start using GIS mapping. If you have more questions or need a little more encouragement, feel free to contact me at Happy mapping!
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