Learning Geographic Information Systems (GIS) on my own?
March 27, 2008 9:39 PM   Subscribe

Learning Geographic Information Systems (GIS) on my own?

I am a political science PhD student and want to learn geographic information systems (GIS). Can anyone familiar with GIS recommend great blogs, books, mailing lists, tutorials, etc.. etc.. to help me learn GIS?

Thanks so much!
posted by chrisalbon to Technology (24 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: BonusFilter: What is the most popular software for doing GIS? Can I use it on my mac?
posted by chrisalbon at 10:10 PM on March 27, 2008

ArcGIS by ESRI is the 800lb gorilla of GIS apps, but it's Windows only AFAIK. GRASS is available on OSX and worth looking into. Wikipedia is a good starting point for information.
posted by doowod at 11:00 PM on March 27, 2008

What kind info we gives you depends entirely on what you want to do with GIS.
posted by bigmusic at 11:03 PM on March 27, 2008

Talk to your geography department, and see about a license for GIS software. It is likely that they have an institutional ArcGIS license. ArcGIS won't run on your mac, as has been mentioned, but perhaps you can install it on a machine on-campus that you have access to? That might be easier for licensing purposes too. Play with it, and be aware that it is a very picky piece of software. Example: keep your filenames short and alpha-numeric. Don't try and move your files around without using ArcCatalog.
So, as bigmusic said, what do you want to do? What kind of data do you expect to have access to/generate? What sorts of analyses do you wish to perform? What type of display would you like to create? If you're collecting data in the field, be very sure of what you want before you collect it. The harder it will be to go back and collect it again, the surer you should be the first time, as it is very possible to screw up data collection and accidently create a huge amount of work for yourself.
posted by agentofselection at 12:13 AM on March 28, 2008

As has been said, ArcGIS is the system for GIS for what you'll be doing (science sometimes uses programs like ERDAS Imagine for remote sensing, engineers use stuff like MIKE SHE for hydrology, but all the datasets and all the tools you'll be using for policy are aimed for ArcGIS).

The program is a monster. It has tons of parts, many of which don't play nice with each other out of the box. There are half a million different views, and each one can do slightly different things. It takes a while to learn, but the best way to do it is just to start in on a project, give yourself lots of time, and slough through.

The single biggest thing you can do is read up on all the theory part of what you're doing. Read up on spatial analysis and geostatistics. Learn what the algorithms you're plucking out of the toolbox actually are doing, and where they screw up (because they ALL screw up somehow).

In terms of technical skills to make sure you know:
- Make absolutely sure you know how to convert all of your data between all the formats it'll ever be in. Dataset conversion (which includes coordinate systems, projections, data types, labels, missing value indicators, min/max values, etc) is the single biggest place you'll screw up. If your input data uses -1 as a missing value indicator, and your spatial analysis software has a separate 'null' value, all of your numbers will be meaningless.
- Know how and when to fix shapefiles. Shapefiles are almost uniformally screwed up in some way. A lot of times, it doesn't matter. For some tools, it does. Know how to recognize problems and know how to fix them (ArcGIS has tons and tons of tools for this).
- As was already said, know how to use ArcCatalog. It's really helpful, and really necessary.
- Spend some time getting familiar with all of the options for making pretty pictures. There are a lot of them, and it really sucks when your boss/prof/whoever is standing over your shoulder saying "Cool, but I want label font size to scale with variable ___" and you trying to flip through 30 pages of options, scrambling to find the right one. It also rocks when you can say, "no problem" and just do it.
posted by devilsbrigade at 1:11 AM on March 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

Oh, and if you're really using it a lot, at some point you should learn Python to script it. It makes life much easier.
posted by devilsbrigade at 1:11 AM on March 28, 2008

Zeroing In by Andy Mitchell is a good lay introduction to what GIS can be used for, to help you answer some of the questions posed by agentsofselection. It won't tell you how to do specific maps/analyses with GIS, but it's a good place to start if you're unfamiliar with the program.
posted by lunit at 2:23 AM on March 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you have some money, invest in an ESRI developer's subscription. I believe it runs somewhere around $1500 / year. It may be even much cheaper for a student. The developer's subscription will give you (relatively) inexpensive access to ESRI's entire ArcGIS platform.

ESRI also has a ton of resources available on their developer's network, especially for version 9.2. If you have the subscription you'll also get access to free on-line training. I would start there to get an idea of how GIS works within an organization.

Sorry to come at it from the software vendor POV, but that is the way I learned. But, I'm sure there are probably more effective ways to go about it.
posted by brandnew at 3:00 AM on March 28, 2008

Obviously, you can run ArcGIS on your Mac, just not in OSX. And if you can get access to it for free from your institution, and boot to Windows, that's probably what you should do. You can do free online introductory courses through ESRI which will familiarize you with a lot of the concepts people are suggesting you learn. Many colleges' introductory courses are based directly on the ESRI curriculum. They have more advanced pay classes online that teach different applications of their software, and accompanying books.

I think all of this is very unfortunate financially and because information wants to be free and etc., but it is a tremendously powerful application and my experience with the open source options has been that they are either woefully buggy or woefully unfriendly.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:19 AM on March 28, 2008

Open source: OSGeo Mapguide (commercialized by Autodesk).
posted by normy at 5:09 AM on March 28, 2008

ArcGIS is a PITA to learn on your own. I'm the sort who is legendary (in my own mind) for being able to use things without reading the manual. ArcGIS has so many options, so many formats it can read and write, that there's a sort of combinatorial explosion any time you want to do the simplest thing (like, oh, draw a map or superimpose one map on top of another).

For your initial introduction, especially if you're not technical, I recommend an intro to GIS class or some form of apprenticeship - pick it up by watching someone do routine tasks, because there's a ton of stuff you'll never have to (or want to) use, and watching someone actually use it will get you to where you are functional faster than trying to learn the entire application.
posted by zippy at 6:19 AM on March 28, 2008

Without the software by your side, it's difficult to really learn GIS. I can say that from a user standpoint where I have taken classes in the more limited ESRI ArcView and really only know the basics. From a practical standpoint, a semester long class working with university supplied software is probably the best way to get a good handle on it. You could buy a license as has been suggested but that is more expensive than taking a class and you most likely won't get as much out of it. Reading a book or blog without the software is kind of pointless IMHO.

I guess it depends on what your goal is. Do you just want to know how to converse with other people about what GIS is or do you want to actually know how to use it to create something? If the latter, take a class.
posted by JJ86 at 7:32 AM on March 28, 2008

Another option on the FOSS side is QGIS. Its more of a desktop GIS than Mapguide which is really a web mapping platform (although maybe that's what you need - uses cases?). QGIS has a OSX version and is also a nice frontend for GRASS which can be daunting as a new mapster.

Once you settle on a platform to try, makes some maps of where you live for fun. Lots of geospatial data is free on the web to get you started. Your familiarity might help you identify data/projection inconsistencies, which is a big hurdle for new GISers.

Echoing the comments above, the ESRI Arc suite is very nice. Your university is a good place to get a seat license and maybe documentation which is pretty thorough for the newer ESRI software. My uni also has the Arc tutorials and accompanying data on the campus network - ask about for that. A campus GIS librarian is a good resource if they exist.

Also try to find a local user group (ESRI or otherwise) - they may have intro training/presentations at their meetings.
posted by jethrographic at 7:38 AM on March 28, 2008

Just to elaborate on ESRI products, ArcView is a powerful product but is not as powerful as ArcGIS. ArcGIS is a development tool whereas ArcView is a user tool to create maps from an already created GIS database. Depending on your needs you might want to use one over the other. If you have access to GIS data which you do not have to create then you might want to stick with learning ArcView.
posted by JJ86 at 7:41 AM on March 28, 2008

@JJ86: ArcGIS is a development tool whereas ArcView is a user tool to create maps from an already created GIS database.

I think this is a bit confusing as ESRI still uses "ArcView" to talk about a specific product level license of the ArcGIS Desktop suite. If this is what you meant, then I agree that the ArcView license level is fine for most folks.

If you meant ArcView 3.x, the predecessor of ArcGIS Desktop, then I disagree with your recommendation. I use ArcGIS in a map production environment (vs. new data development) and really like its straight cartographic features much more than ArcView 3.x. I do still use ArcView 3.x because it is light (CPU/Memory) and has many useful analysis extensions developed around it. ArcView 3.x is less complex and easier to learn as well...
posted by jethrographic at 8:14 AM on March 28, 2008

At my alma mater, the Faculty of Forestry also made use of GIS quite extensively. Perhaps there's something similar at your university?

Additionally, there appear to be GIS user groups, at least up here. There might be some in your area too.
posted by Nelsormensch at 8:52 AM on March 28, 2008

A further refinement of what's been suggested above. ESRI has a virtual campus with lots of free courses and many of the pay courses let you download/request a trial version of the software as well.
posted by jethrographic at 8:55 AM on March 28, 2008

What jethrographic said, both times. There are many uses that with old ArcView is soooooo much easier to use. I use both equally. And the ESRI collge is pretty useful.

I taught myself GIS (with some help learning ArcGIS when it came out), so I know it can be done, but I had the benefit of using it almost everyday in workplace situations. If you're going to learn ArcGIS, I would really recommend buckling down and taking a class. Maybe an inexpensive course at a JC near you?
posted by elendil71 at 9:41 AM on March 28, 2008

The book we used in school (I was in an urban planning Master's program) is called ArcGIS and the Digital City and provided step-by-step tutorials. Obviously, you have to have access to ArcGIS in order to get value from it, but if you're a student, you can get a license at a reasonable rate. You should be able to use it on campus for free; if it's only available in the geography lab, make a friend or two in the department. GIS folks are evangelistic, they'll be dying to talk to you about this stuff.

If you're not familiar with Access or other database programs, you would be well-served to learn the basics of database management before leaping headlong into GIS. Probably someone can rustle up a basic SQL tutorial. GIS is much more about data manipulation than "ooh, pretty maps." devilsbrigade has the best answer IMHO.

I have a bunch of random GIS links on my delicious site. Also, here's a big list of links from my alma mater, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
posted by desjardins at 9:58 AM on March 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

One other thing I forgot last night - your county tax assessor's office probably has free tax lot maps in ESRI shapefile format. It's not poll/survey/research data, but it'll give you a good sense of displaying real-world information, & maybe a chance to learn a few of the spatial analysis tools. If you need more data, this is a good place to start.
posted by devilsbrigade at 11:08 AM on March 28, 2008

um, verging into evangelism with yet another answer but...

Check out MIT's OpenCourseWare offerings as well - a quick search found this and also this course related to desjardins' comments.

Regarding RDBs and SQL: I completed a Master's (Geography) heavy on spatial analysis and never needed (or knew!) any SQL. Now I use spatially-enabled databases everyday. IMHO it depends on your application/datasets as to whether to include database management in your initial exploration. Regardless, it's an extremely valuable followon activity, even if you don't need it just now. Same goes for learning python...
posted by jethrographic at 11:13 AM on March 28, 2008

Don't let people scare you. Like elendil71, I learned basic, functional skills on the job with two one-hour lessons and maybe nine five-minute phone calls to a friend. (I had the benefit / curse of having to start teaching it to others about three months in, which definitely accelerated the learning process.)

From my perspective, half these comments make the whole thing sound way too hard. They're probably 100% accurate if you ultimately want to focus on GIS. But if you're not going to be the GIS person wherever you end up, you'll have someone who'll give you a library of data that's in the same projection. If you're going that easier direction, you could start by focusing on, "I have this data, how can I get some meaning from it? how can I display it so it communicates clearly?" In other words, devilsbrigade is telling you how to check for, like, inter-rater reliability (making sure the data you have is valid), whereas I'm saying -- learn to make bar charts that tell you what the data is saying first.

Where I work, we use the Arcview license for basic applied analysis and adding attributes to existing shape files. We use the ArcView license on ArcGIS, plus X Tools (free plugin), plus we're planning to buy the Spatial Analyst extension pack.

The advice to take a class at a JC is good. I'd also look for the book here that best applies to your work. Definitely check out the bestsellers there on the left. Some come with a CD with sample data to use for exercises. I know a lot of students who got a sample 6-month Arc license as a student when taking a class, so you might look around for the free samples.

Good luck. Anyway, thanks for the question. Now I'm off to read all these resources! :)
posted by salvia at 11:52 AM on March 28, 2008

What is the most popular software for doing GIS?

I know some people who do this. I'll ask them whether there's an emerging standard in political science. A smart chrisalbon would memail me in a few days if you don't see anything here.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:37 PM on March 28, 2008

Highly recommend "Pro Oracle Spatial" by Apress-- great book, got me through my Masters.
posted by Static Vagabond at 2:35 PM on March 28, 2008

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