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Geographical Information System (GIS): Obtain and Download GIS

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

Downloading GIS

Frequently Asked Questions

What can I do with GIS? Can you show me some examples?

See ESRI's What is GIS?.  Read this section for newcomers to GIS at

What is required for learning to use GIS and digital mapping tools? 

Depending on what you need, acquiring the skills could take several hours or several days (or weeks).  To use a fully customizable GIS product, such as ArcGIS, you may need to take a course or attend a 2-day training (or the online equivalent).  However, there are simpler forms of GIS such as digital mapping web sites that are populated with preset data; in these, options for data selection and manipulation may be limited. The more complex forms of digital mapping and GIS allow you to add your own data, turn layers of data on and off, answer queries, and customize the display. Many of the simpler web applications will allow you to export their data in a form that can be used in a more advanced system.


Example use of GIS

Image courtesy of Kathy Herrlich, Research and Instruction Librarian, Northeastern University

GIS at Northeastern University

How to get the right GIS program for your personal computer?

Company Program System Operator How to obtain
ESRI ArcGIS Desktop (ArcGIS Pro) Windows Operating System (WOS)

Please obtain an ArcGIS Online account (below) and follow the ArcGIS Pro download (below this table)

ArcGIS Pro only runs on Windows System, if you are a Mac user, you can access the program via the NU's Remote Desktop/ Azure or on Mac with Windows emulation.

Faculty can submit a request to use Azure Labs with their class via Northeastern ITS.

ArcGIS Online and its apps (Story Map, Dashboard, Web map) WOS, Mac OS, and Chrome Book

Fill out the ArcGIS Online and ArcGIS Pro Access Request Form to obtain your AGOL NU Organization account (during working hours- Monday through Friday 9am-5pm).

catuionAttention: 1- AGOL uses credit, and each member will receive 1000 credits. To find out how AGOL uses credits please refer to Understand Credits.

2- Once you receive an invitation from ArcGIS Online, please indicate your NU college, field of study and the graduation year in Bio. This account is yours while you are a part of NU community, and you can use it for any of your GIS courses. Find more in the GIS Subject Guide of the Snell Library in the Download section. 

ArcMap and Arc Catalog Windows Operating System (WOS) ArcMap is soon to be retired and we do not provide any ArcMap licenses at NU. Although, it's still accessible via the remote desktop/ Azure of NU.
QGIS QGIS (latest version 3.24, "Tisler" (5/ 2022) WOS and Mac OS Download Online (Free and Open Source)
Simply Analytics Online Mapping Tool (Link via NU Proxy: Simply Analytics) WOS, Mac OS, and Chrome Book  
Policy Map Online Mapping Tool WOS, Mac OS, and Chrome Book  

If you own a Northeastern University computer, the Software Center offers ArcGIS but for the latest version please feel free to contact Bahare.


Download ArcGIS Pro

Download ArcGIS Pro: 

A Northeastern University ArcGIS Online Organization account is required to download ArcGIS Pro. 

If you do not own an account, please email me at

  1. While sign in NU ArcGIS Online Organization, click your Profile image, in the upper right corner,
  2. Click My Settings, click Licenses,
  3. Scroll down to ArcGIS Pro (near the bottom of the list of licenses) you will see, off to the right, a link to download ArcGIS Pro
  4. A zip folder will be downloaded to your computer. Find the folder, extract the folder. How? Right click on the folder, select Extract All.
  5. You can Extract it in C:\ folder.
  6. Once you unzipped the folder, click on the installer.
  7. When the program installed, use your AGOL credential to sign into the Pro.


ArcGIS Pro VS ArcMap

  • ArcGIS Pro will eventually replace ArcMap
  • There are still some capabilities of ArcMap that are not yet in ArcGIS Pro, so some ArcGIS Desktop users will be using both ArcGIS Pro and ArcMap till Pro has everything you need to fully support your work; most of our research at NU can be supported with ArcGIS Pro
  • If you are new to GIS and own a Windows Operating System, I would recommend to use ArcGIS Pro


Determining The Tools You Need

Do I need to use GIS or will another tool suffice? See the checklist below to help guide you to the right tool.

Questions to ask yourself about your potential project:

Am I interested in geographic boundaries, not data?

If so, you need what is called a reference map

A reference map shows the location of the geographic areas such as boundaries of standard geographic areas such as roads, railroads, coastlines, rivers and lakes names. See examples of reference maps from the U.S. Census.

You can find this data on different sources but any kind of alternation in reference map with boundaries information may need GIS program

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.

If you can't find the static map you are looking for or if you need to produce a thematic map with your own data, you may need GIS.

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.  SimplyAnalytics (Current NU only), Social Explorer and Policy Map have many data sets to choose from and lets you create customized thematic maps. All these resources contains Shapefiles and CSV's which can be added to a map in an aspatial and/or spatial way.

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

SimplyAnalytics 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.) You can download shapefiles and CSV's for your GIS project from this platform.

PolicyMap offers easy-to-use online mapping with data on demographics, real estate, health, jobs and more in communities across the US. From the classroom to the boardroom, thousands of organizations trust PolicyMap to find the right data for their research, market studies, business planning, site selection, grant applications and impact analysis. You can also add your own data to some extend to PolicyMap interface. You can also download shapefiles and CSV's for your GIS project from this platform.

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).

Pearl of Wisdom

A map is the greatest of all epic poems. Its lines and colors show the realization of great dreams.Gilbert H. Grosvenor, Editor of National Geographic (1903- 1954)

What you will find in this page: GIS program which you can use for a research or assignment/ how to decide if you need GIS/ how to decide which GIS program we can use