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Geographical Information System (GIS): Digital Mapping

This guide contains GIS office hours, tutorials, sources and platforms

GIS Quote

The early days of GIS were very lonely. No-one knew what it meant.”Roger Tomlinson, Father of GIS

Digital Mapping Websites and Web Applications

Google Maps - a website, not an app; more than driving directions, it allows you to create your own maps and save favorite locations.

Google Earth - a web application; there is a free version that can be downloaded; has greater capability than Google Maps.

Google Earth Pro - professional version of Google Earth; requires a license

ArcGIS Explorer Desktop (ArcGIS Online) - a free web application that allows you to find and share geographic information; create an account to use.

OpenStreetMap - "The free wiki world map"-- Streets and other information may be more detailed than some other free maps.  Pull data from openstreetmap into your ArcGIS online maps.

ScribbleMaps and ScribbleMapsPro-- two free online mapping applications. (The "Pro" version requires registration and has more features.)


Digital Mapping

Mapping data is a powerful way to:


  • Discover new patterns, trends, and relationships in your data
  • See data from various angles
  • Present your data to others

Determining The Tools You Need

Questions to ask yourself about your potential project:

Am I interested only in geographic boundaries, not data?

If so, you need what is called a reference map. See examples of reference maps from the U.S. Census.

Do I need more than a static map?

A static map is one that cannot be altered by the viewer. If you do not have your own data to add and do not need to customize the display or do a complex analysis of data, it's possible that you may not need to use a GIS software program.  A static map may suffice.

Suppose you want to see a map showing regions of Boston where poverty is greatest (or where Portuguese is spoken in the home, or where families have the largest number of children, or which areas are zoned as residential or commercial, for example).  Static maps of this kind are often called thematic maps.

It may be that what you need is available on city government web sites or in the thematic maps from the U.S. Census. Examples of static maps can be found in the Boston Redevelopment Authority's maps of Boston neighborhoods.

Some static maps have clickable points with links to additional information--see the historical maps in Digital Augustan Rome.

Do I want to customize the display?

If the answer is yes, and if you are planning to look at one mapped variable (indicator) at a time, you may be able to find a web site that maps data in your area of interest. There are many web sites that use preselected sets of data and allow for some customization using check boxes to turn data layers on and off.  See MassGIS's OLIVER Data Viewer for an example.  SimplyMap (Current NU only) has many data sets to choose from and lets you create customized thematic maps.

Do I want to customize the display and also look at multiple variables?

SimplyMap maps one variable (indicator) at a time but has a tool called Advanced Data Filters which is, in effect, similar to mapping multiple variables.  (To visualize mapping multiple variables, picture overlays of thematic maps for the same region, as shown in the image in the left column on this page.) Usually, however, you will need GIS software to look at multiple variables.

Do I have data of my own that I would like to map?  Do I want to combine my own data with other data sources or analyze data using specialized tools?

If yes, prepare to learn GIS!  You will likely need to use ArcGIS or another GIS program if you need to do complex analysis or want to join multiple sources of data (or join multiple data layers from one source).



SimplyMap (license resource) This mapping application enables users to develop interactive thematic maps and reports using thousands of demographic, business, health, crime, and marketing data variables including Mediamark and Simmons Consumer Data. Data from 2000 onwards. You can export data from SimplyMap into ArcGIS.

Sample OLIVER Maps

Courtesy of Roxanne Palmatier. The other powerpoint slides in this series are attached below.

See also MassGIS and OLIVER

Contact Info

Please contact Bahare Sanaie-Movahed, GIS Specialist at Snell Library, for further assistance.

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