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GIS Software Basics

GIS software provides the tools to create, manipulate, analyze and display digital geographic data.

Most GIS software allows users to open up layers (sets of GIS data, such as roads, parks, etc.) in one pane of the program window and then to see the mapped results of working with that data in a second pane. When working with this software, you save a "project" file which contains links to all the data you used, and instructions on how to process and present that data (the project file doesn't actually contain the GIS data).

GIS software can be relatively simple or extremely complex (see below for options). It can also be run over the Internet, allowing web-based access to GIS (sometimes called IMS or Internet Map Services) - as simple as letting you find directions (MapQuest, Google Maps, etc.), to as complex as a browser of all U.S. Census data (American FactFinder), or a conservation atlas showing natural lands throughout a state (e.g., California's Digital Conservation Atlas).

GIS software can perform an amazing variety of analyses. Among many other things it can be used to: 

  • Create ("digitize") data about your land trust's holdings.
  • Produce a graphically powerful map of your area of operations, to be printed or to use digitally in a report or web site.
  • Assess your members in relation to the work you do (use its commands to find all members/donors who live within, say, a quarter-mile of a conservation site or other feature).
  • Build a model to analyze conservation priorities in a particular landscape.


Before looking at GIS software, it's worth examining non-GIS mapping programs:

Street Atlas/Mapping Software:  these programs allow you to view and print very simple maps of streets or of topography. Best choices are Microsoft Streets and Trips, DeLorme Street Atlas and National Geographic's Topo (basically USGS quads but very useful for land trusts and can link to GIS). Costs range from $50-300.

Internet-based Map Browsing:    Google Earth is a remarkably effective tool for land trusts. Download the free program and you can browse very good aerial photography throughout the world and then view it in "3D", showing elevation and overlaying other information.  Google Maps also has a "street view" function showing continuous photography of the actual street level scene, and Google Earth 3D can now be embedded in Google Maps mashups.

Bing (Microsoft) also offers web-based map browsing, and includes both 3D views (somewhat like Google Earth) and unusual high-resolution photos that show parts of urban areas from an "oblique" (sideways) angle.

Use of the web for presenting (and even analyzing) GIS data is growing very fast, with many commercial, governmental and public interest web mapping sites coming on line every month.

LEARN MORE about web-based GIS and earth-browsing...


Simple GIS software: 
Several programs offer basic GIS for under $600, including Microsoft MapPoint, ESRI Business Analyst and Caliper's Maptitude. These programs, however, are mostly for those working with business demographics rather than natural landscapes, and are not good choices for most land trusts.

Basic GIS software:  Full featured GIS software that allows users to access a wide range of data, perform relatively robust analyses and produce highly effective maps.  The leading desktop GIS software for land trusts is ESRI's ArcGIS/ArcView product - see here for more information on how land trusts can acquire and use this software (link to below section). Cost range - $1,000-2,000, with annual maintenance fees of $2-300 per package.

Advanced GIS software:  Expert-user software that can perform just about any function you might need.  This software includes a dizzying array of options and modules, the most well-known brand is the ESRI ArcGIS/ArcInfo package.  Very few land trusts will make use of this type of software.  Cost range - $10-20,000, with hefty annual maintenance fees ($2-3,000 per user per year).



The primary GIS software used in land trust work is from Environmental Systems Research Institute  (ESRI), which produces the “ArcGIS” line – ArcExplorer, ArcView, ArcInfo, etc. ESRI software is very widely used by public agencies, particularly land managers, and by academic institutions and many businesses. 

ESRI ArcGIS and ArcView products also come with “extensions” that allow specialized analysis. For land trusts the most important are Spatial Analyst (creates and analyzes topography), Image Analyst (analyzes satellite imagery) and 3D Analyst (for showing and analyzing 3D views).

ESRI GIS Grants:  ESRI has a very generous program for conservation groups (including land trusts), allowing them to apply for free donations of ESRI GIS products. The application can require some effort but it is helpful in planning out your needs.  If bought commercially, ESRI ArcView software costs about $1,200 and extensions are much higher, so the grant can be very useful.  Grants do not include annual maintenance costs, however and these can be many hundreds of dollars per year.  To find out more about the program and to receive the latest application form send a blank email (no subject) to:  ecpgrant@esri.com  LEARN MORE about the ESRI Conservation Program... 

ESRI also publishes outstanding how-to manuals and other books, and it has a "virtual campus" that lets users take web-based courses, mostly for a modest fee ($75-100). LEARN MORE about the ESRI Virtual Campus...



  MapMaker  is a free GIS program from the UK that has a fairly wide range of capacity (but its projects may not be fully compatible with ESRI projects).

Illustration Software: Many land trusts can benefit from using pre-made ("stock") maps created with illustration software (e.g., Adobe Illustrator or Freehand). Major web resources for these include Map Resources and Mapsinminutes.com These maps can be fully customized but do not have the functions of GIS-produced maps. There is a very useful tool for those who want to bring GIS-created maps into illustration software, Avenza's MapPublisher. It costs well over $500 but is very useful at this task.

Other GIS Software:   MapInfo is used mainly for business  and demographic applications and is no longer a reasonable choice for land trust organizations.  Autodesk publishes some GIS related software, but mostly focuses on larger corporate systems and architectural design.

NEXT – Where to Get GIS Data >>>

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