Our Dubuque, Iowa office has moved! Visit us at our new location on Main Street.

GIS 101: What is a Geographic Information System?


A geographic information system, also called GIS, is designed to capture, store, manipulate, and manage various types of geographical data. Geography is a critical component of GIS, as data used in the system is somehow referenced to locations on Earth. 

What can we do with GIS? 

Geographic information systems can help solve problems and influence decision-making, as well as present data in a graphical or spatial way. A few uses for GIS include…

  1. Mapping where things are. We can map the location of real-world features and visualize the relationships between these features. For example, GIS can generate a map of all of the water towers within a given area or region. 
  2. Mapping quantities. This tool can map the distribution of features within a given area, helping to influence decisions. An example of this could be a map of fire stations across Iowa. Counties with more fire stations would be shaded darker than counties with fewer. 
  3. Mapping densities. Sometimes it is beneficial to map concentrations in specified areas. For example, GIS can generate a map or graphic showing population density in a given area, with more densely populated areas being shown in a different color than areas with a smaller population density. 
  4. Mapping what is nearby. Users can find out what is located within a set distance of a given feature or location. For example, a map of Cities within a 30-minute drive of Davenport, Iowa. 
  5. Mapping change. Our world constantly changes, and GIS can help visualize these progressions over time. An example of this is two maps, 20 years apart, showing the growth in development in a given area over that period of time. 

GIS is more than just computer software. Combining its power with various methods and tools, we are able to analyze geographical data, manage large data sets, and display information in a graphical/map form.