Getting Started with GIS Mapping

Susan Grunewald,
Doctoral Candidate in the Department of History
April 2019

So you’re interested in Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping? Great.
This little article will give you the basics you need to know about it and resources for undertaking GIS projects at Carnegie Mellon University.

The first step in GIS mapping is to have an acceptable data source. If your data is just a list of place names, that’s fine. Some mapping software has systems for looking up and mapping places from the name, but it is easiest if your data source has latitude and longitude coordinates. For quickly getting the coordinates of up to 100 locations, you can use the Google Map Developers Batch Geocode Tool. For those with basic coding skills and larger lists of locations to geolocate (also known as geocoding), I suggest using ggmap for R.

If you aren’t sure what types of map you want to create, you can start by looking at the types of free data available to use in GIS software. DIVA-GIS provides both open source mapping software and data sets ranging from country data such as boundaries, population density, and roads to climate data. Or, while it is by no means a comprehensive list, this blog provides a list of free global data available for GIS research. As the list shows, the United States offers the most resources, but there are data sets for seemingly every country in the world.

Once you have data that you wish to map, you need to then input it into a mapping program to visualize it. There are plenty of options for mapping software. Super simple maps can be created with the online MapMaker Interactive from National Geographic. For more complex maps that use specific country data, the free and open source program QGIS can produce more professional quality maps and allow users to perform different types of complex spatial analysis such as choropleth  or raster maps. For those interested in learning the basics of data acquisition and cleaning, mapping, and map analysis, I suggested the excellent tutorial for QGIS by Seth Bernstein. His tutorial is broken down into part one on getting and cleaning data and part two on mapping/visualizing the data. The Programming Historian also offers tutorials for installing an older version of QGIS and adding layers, taking historical maps and lining them up with contemporary base maps (known as georeferencing), creating vector layers on historical maps, and geocoding historical data.

Members of the Carnegie Mellon University community also have the opportunity to learn how to use and obtain a license for the professional mapping software ArcGIS through the H. John Heinz III College of Information Systems and Public Policy. Frequently, faculty in Heinz College offer an introductory course in GIS that covers the basics of ArcGIS as well as presents its many advanced spatial analysis tools. Heinz also offers more complex courses in Raster GIS and Health Care GIS.

For more information about getting started with GIS mapping and spatial data, please refer to the spatial data LibGuide on the University Libraries website [] , contact a member of dSHARP or come by the weekly open office/consulting hours.