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ArcGIS: An Introduction: What is GIS?

Tutorial for WICshop on ArcGIS

What is GIS?

Geographic information systems (GIS) are used in a wide range of academic and applied fields. Simply put, GIS allows you to combine tabular data (e.g. a spreadsheet) with geographic boundaries (e.g. maps).


Maantay, J. (2007). Asthma and air pollution in the Bronx: Methodological and data considerations in using GIS for environmental justice and health research. Health & Place, 13(1), 32-56.
Mapped residences of asthma patients based on recorded addresses (geocoding) and determined whether they were more likely to live near pollution sources (buffers, proximity analysis).

Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network.

Larsen, K., & Gilliland, J. (2008). Mapping the evolution of “food deserts” in a Canadian city: Supermarket accessibility in London, Ontario, 1961–2005. International Journal of Health Geographics, 7(16), n.p.
Mapped the location of grocery stores from addresses (geocoding), determined how many people lived with a 10-minute bus ride from the stores (network analysis).

Jones, E. E. (2006). Using Viewshed Analysis to Explore Settlement Choice: A Case Study of the Onondaga Iroquois. American Antiquity, 71(3), 523-538.
Used the topography around Iroquois archaeological sites to determine how far villager inhabitants could see (viewshed analysis).

For more examples, search Esri's GIS Bibliography.

GIS Books at the Penn Libraries

The library carries a huge number of GIS texts, both in print and online.


What is ArcGIS?

ArcGIS 10 Desktop is the latest version of the most widely used GIS product, made by company called Esri. It is a Windows-only suite of programs:

    • ArcMap: for making maps, conducting analyses, and most other GIS functions.
    • ArcCatalog: for organizing data and metadata, similar to My Computer on a Windows. In ArcGIS 10, ArcCatalog also exists within ArcMap.
    • ArcScene: for 3D visualizations.
    • ArcGlobe: for 3D visualizations of very large data sets.

There are also a number of extensions for particular tasks:

  • Network Analyst
  • Spatial Analyst
  • 3D Analyst
  • Tracking Analyst

Common functions

Geocode: To create points on a map from street addresses in spreadsheet form

Overlay: To superimpose two or more maps or layers in the same coordinate system, to show the relationships between them

Georeference: To align geographic data (map, layer, etc.) with a given coordinate system, allowing for overlays

Select by location (proximity analysis): To select features according to their relationship in space to other features

Select by attribute: To select features according to their properties (attributes), like querying a database

Buffer: To create a zone around a feature in units of distance or time

Network analysis: To find the distance from a feature travelled along a network (such as roads, public transit) rather than as the crow flies

Join: To attach fields from one table to those of another through an attribute or field common to both tables.

Viewshed analysis: To determine what areas are visible from a particular location.

Adapted from Esri's GIS Dictionary.