Getting Started with Geographic Information Systems

What are Geographic Information Systems (GIS)?

“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 10.6.1 are available at  Instructions to install ArcGIS Pro will be posted soon.  Please contact Bill Guthe at for more information.

ArcGIS Online/ Portal for ArcGIS are on-line mapping and analysis tools available to the Princeton community. These services are accessed through web browsers. Please contact Bill Guthe at or Tsering Wangyal Shawa at if you are interested in using Portal for ArcGIS.

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.

Harris Geospatial Solutions:

ENVI is image analysis software built using IDL, a scientific programming language. A limited number of stand-alone 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 Related open-source software such as PostgreSQL/PostGIS, GeoServer, OpenLayers, and Leaflet are also supported.

How can I get started using GIS?


Sign up for training

One and a half-hour workshops are offered by Library and Research Computing staff once or twice a semester. Students, faculty and staff may sign up for these workshops at Training is provided in both Esri and open-source desktop software.

The one and one-half hour training sessions are suitable for many faculty, staff and students. The Introduction to ArcGIS session introduces the technology and its use. For those who would prefer not to use a Windows operating system, a separate Introduction to QGIS session is available. After completing that session, nine other sessions are offered to help participants learn how to use specific tools in GIS.

Use on-line training

Princeton also makes available on-line classes from Esri. Please visit for more information.

QGIS provides on-line documentation and training material to help users become familiar with GIS technology and how it is implemented within QGIS.

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 or Tsering Wangyal Shawa at

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.