Getting Started with Geographic Information Systems

What are Geographic Information Systems (GIS)?

topographic map

“A Geographic Information System (GIS) is a specialized computer database program designed for the collection, storage, manipulation, retrieval, and analysis of spatial data” (from page 4 of GIS Research Methods, by Steinberg and Steinberg (2015), Esri Press, Redlands, CA).

GIS allows you to analyze geographic information and present results as maps, databases, animations, web applications and other products. Because most information has a spatial component, GIS can provide new techniques to study how objects of interest vary over space and time.

For more information about Geographic Information Systems, please visit

What GIS resources does Princeton have?

The University Library and the Office of Information Technology work together to provide GIS data, software, training, and project support to university faculty, staff and students.

GIS Data and Library services

A good analysis requires good data. An extensive collection of GIS data is available through the Map and Geospatial Information Center.

GIS Software


ArcGIS Desktop and ArcGIS Pro software are available to Princeton faculty, students and staff through a university-wide license, and can be downloaded onto PCs running Windows. Installation instructions for ArcGIS Pro are available. Please contact Bill Guthe at [email protected] for any installation and licensing questions.

ArcGIS Online/ Portal for ArcGIS are on-line mapping and analysis tools available to the Princeton community. These services are accessed through web browsers by going to the Princeton University ArcGIS Online portal. Choose the Princeton University option to log in to the site using your Princeton NetID and password. Once on the site, you can create and load data, make web maps and build web applications. Please contact Bill Guthe at [email protected] or T. Wangyal Shawa at [email protected] if you have any questions.

Princeton users can also access ArcGIS Pro through a Princeton Virtual Desktop (PVD).  More information about PVDs are available at Service Now Knowledge Base article KB0012822 .  Research Computing manages two PVDs that have ArcGIS Pro installed: ArcGISProv3 and ArcGISProv4.  Please contact Bill Guthe at [email protected] if you would like access to these PVDs.

Hexagon Geospatial

Research Computing staff support ERDAS Imagine and other products from Hexagon Geospatial. ERDAS Imagine is used for image analysis, remote sensing, and GIS. A limited number of stand-alone licenses are available each year.

NV5 Geospatial Software

ENVI is image analysis software built using IDL, a scientific programming language. A limited number of floating licenses are available each year.

Open-Source Software

Research Computing staff supports QGIS, an open-source GIS product that runs on most operating systems. The software can be downloaded from the QGIS site. Related open-source software such as PostgreSQL/PostGIS, GeoServer, and Leaflet are also supported.

How can I get started using GIS?

Sign up for Training

Library and Research Computing staff offer one and a half-hour workshops each semester. Students, faculty and staff may sign up for these workshops through the Princeton library. Training is provided in both Esri and QGIS desktop software.

The one and one-half hour training sessions are suitable for most faculty, staff and students. The introductory sessions for ArcGIS Pro and QGIS assume no previous knowledge of GIS technology; either session can be a good place to start. ArcGIS Pro and QGIS each have eight training sessions that follow the introductory session. The follow-up sessions are not dependent on each other, require only basic GIS knowledge, and may be taken based on your interests.

Each semester the Princeton Library offers training to use ArcGIS StoryMaps .  This technology uses the Princeton University ArcGIS Online site to create data, web maps and web applications.  No prior knowledge of GIS or Esri software is needed to take this training.

Use Online Training

Princeton University has a campus-wide site license to use Esri software. This site license allows Princeton University students, faculty, and staff to access all the free Esri GIS online courses as well as any course that “Requires Maintenance”. In order to take a course that “Requires Maintenance” a person should first join the Pumagic organization using their Princeton NetID and password. After you join the Pumagic site you can take all the free courses as well as any “Requires Maintenance” GIS online courses. If you have any questions, please contact the GIS and Map Librarian, T. Wangyal Shawa ([email protected]).

Contact Research Computing or Library staff

If you have specific questions about how GIS may help you complete a research project, please contact Bill Guthe at [email protected] or Tsering Wangyal Shawa at [email protected].

Many research tasks involve multiple steps, which need to be replicated for many study sites. Research Computing staff members have a variety of tools to help users build models and run multi-step processes in succession.