GIS Tools

Written by: Caroline Chen, Student Associate at the Land Use Law Center

What is GIS?

GIS stands for Geographic Information Systems. It is an information system that is designed to work with data referenced by spatial or geographic coordinates.  In other words, a GIS is both a database system with specific capabilities for spatially referenced data, as well as a set of operations for working [analysis] with the data.[1]

At first glance it’s easy to interpret GIS as just software. However, it is important to keep in mind that to create a usable and manageable GIS you not only need the software, but also data and at least one person who is somewhat dedicated to the task of performing the analysis that you’d like to carry out on the data.

What is GIS used for?

All over the country, governments, private and public organizations, as well as educational and research institutions are using GIS to answer spatially related questions. For example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) may use GIS in their rescue missions when wildfires strike a state, New York State may use GIS in planning and managing their highways, and Dutchess County in New York may use GIS in allowing the public to locate schools and hospitals in the county through the internet.[2]

Why use GIS?

It is much more than static paper maps.   Beyond producing informative, beautiful, sophisticated and interactive maps, GIS most importantly analyzes data as it is  spatially related. For example, let’s say you have data for hospitals, fire stations, streets and highways in your county. GIS can be used to find out which fire stations are closest to each hospital, and even what the optimal route is to access hospital A from fire station B. You can even make this information available online. 

The beauty of GIS lies in the fact that it can be customized to meet specific needs.  One license of software may be all that is needed to produce a zoning map or display downloaded data found on the internet, obtained through another department, or purchased.  More complex tasks such as planning routes, or finding optimal sites for development or conservation, can be accomplished by expanding your GIS into a system that includes a centralized database of your desired data.  Additionally, GIS can output interactive and analytical maps via the internet.     

Where and how do I begin?

1. See what’s out there: The best initial step to take is to look at what has already been done. This will provide a general understanding of what GIS technology can do. More importantly, it may generate ideas on how to approach your goal in the most practical and efficient way.

2. Speak to someone: The GIS world is a friendly one. You will have a better idea of whom to approach after carrying out step one, and will likely want to speak to someone who knows of GIS and has been in a similar position. For example, if you are a county, consult with other counties in your state. You may even venture farther to consult not only out of state counties, but also state, regional or even federal departments. This is a good process to go through because on the way you may discover grants, data, even services or software, many being free of charge.

3. Once you have a good idea of where to take your project or task, your next step is to undertake some training on GIS (i.e. on the software itself). After all, you will need to know the GIS software’s capabilities to plan the best route toward your goal. Good training will likely involve the planning of actual steps to take to incorporate the software into your organization.

Useful resources:

Listed below are some examples of Internet sites* that supply general information on GIS and GIS data.  Also listed are federal, state and county sites showcasing the use of GIS. Lastly, for those truly inquiring minds, you can also find legal literature on GIS.

*Please note that these links are in no way endorsements for any public or private organizations, they are merely meant to give you an overview of the breadth of information out there and to help you get started.


Internet Sites with General Information on GIS:


Internet Sites that Showcase GIS, Provide Data, or Provide Links to other Data Sources:


  • New York State
    • New York State GIS Clearinghouse
      • This site provides a GIS Coordination Program that includes Land Use, a Land Cover Advisory Workgroup, and a Data Sharing Cooperative
        • Counties can join the Data Sharing Cooperative at no cost simply by signing a license agreement. Counties need not have their own dataset to join, and can borrow or buy the datasets they need.
          • There are general basic, as well as sophisticated, information/datasets available here
          • This site provides several lists of contact persons, including county contacts.


Other: Educational institutions, Non-Profit Organizations:


GIS Software Providers:

·  ESRI (Environmental Systems Research Institute, Inc.)

·  MapInfo

·  Clark Labs

Literature on GIS:




[1] (Star and Estes, 1990) as cited on

[2] See Dutchess County’s website at