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SMU Libraries

Geographic Information Systems (GIS): How GIS Works

A guide on GIS and mapping-related resources

How GIS works

What are the steps involved? 

When using GIS software for the first time, it helps to know where to start. Below is a very simplified, jargon-free explanation of the key steps involved. 


Step 1: Download an openly available GIS software, eg. QGIS (more free software under Software & Tools).

Step 2: Search for Base Maps of the area/zone that you are focussing on. These maps will serve as the foundation that you will eventually build upon. GIS software should have the functionality that allows you to search for maps directly from the platform and import them. 

Step 3: Add Layers onto your map. If you don't already have data, first you will need to search for data to add as a layer. As long as there is location component (eg. address, or postcode etc.), any data can be added. For example, it can be as simple as a spreadsheet of a list of shopping malls and their addresses. 

Step 4: Before your data can be added as a layer and visualised, the locations (ie. your addresses) will need to be converted into geographic coordinates (latitude, longitude/X,Y coordinates), in a process called Geocoding which can be easily done with the included tools. 

Step 5: Add any additional layers if desired, eg. bank locations, so that they can be visually compared with shopping malls. 

Step 6: Customize the colours and symbols that represent your different layers, eg. red shopping bags to represent shopping malls, and blue dollar notes to represent banks.

Step 7: Ready to Analyse for trends, patterns and relationships!

Step 8: Share, if desired.

GIS Terminology

See through the Jargon! 

GIS encompasses quite a bit of specific terminology and jargon, but don't let that stop you! Look them up with ESRI's GIS Dictionary.


Need for GIS

Do you actually need GIS? 

Some types of simple mapping and distance measurement need not require GIS software. 

In many instances such as simply calculating distances between points, Internet Map Services eg. OneMap may be sufficient. This may be more time-efficient than learning a new software with powerful functionality! 

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