GIS Matters: Getting Started in GIS

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The surveyor who wishes to learn about Geographic Information Systems (GIS) would like to know where to go to learn about what GIS is, what it can do, and how to gain practical experience with it. There are many opportunities for learning about GIS and for becoming involved with GIS data development, maintenance and improvement. The main avenues of opportunities fall into six groups:
Online learning
GIS on the Web
State or local GIS groups
GIS conferences

There is a wealth of GIS books available which cover many topics on GIS at various levels. There are introductory books that provide overviews of GIS in general, books about GIS as it relates to professional disciplines (including case studies, such as GIS for emergency response, or GIS for telecommunications), and highly technical and detailed books on specific software, or how to do certain types of GIS analysis with GIS, such as threedimensional analysis.

A good place to start is with a general overview of GIS, in order to develop an understanding of the general context and basis of GIS as well as its broad application. From there one can find books on nearly any subject and discipline of GIS, including highly technical material for indepth approaches to specific topics, such as Hydrologic and Hydraulic Modeling with GIS, by David R. Maidment, or Assessing the Accuracy of Remotely Sensed Data: Principles and Practices, by Russell G. Congalton and Kass Green. Additionally, books on GIS development, such as Roger Tomlinson’s Thinking About GIS provide the foundation for implementing a GIS. Another excellent resource is the Environment Systems Research Institute (ESRI) annual Map Book. The Map Book showcases the great cartographic products of GIS from around the world produced by GIS professional in many disciplines. This book is very inspiring because it shows the creative work that is being done with GIS and demonstrates the power and beauty of modern digital cartography.

Here are a few places to go for GIS publications from the very basic to the highly advanced. The Urban and Regional Information System Association (URISA, has a number of publications as well as an online store with many excellent books on GIS. The American Congress on Surveying and Mapping (ACSM has an online store with dozens of GIS related books, including many books on surveying. Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI, the major GIS software company in the US, has its publishing arm, ESRI Press, where you will find a rich offering from the very basic to the very specific. Moreover, now that GIS has become more common in the workplace and in our lives, other online book stores, such as Amazon ( also carry books on GIS.

Online Learning
Online learning is becoming more available for many fields, and GIS is no exception. Online training opportunities are offered by universities, major software vendors such as Autodesk, ESRI, Intergraph, and some private online training vendors. The online training is offered in a variety of ways; some are self-study/self-paced where you work through the course material on your own, others are instructor led, and may have an interactive component such as video conferencing or direct messaging so that the student can interact with the instructor or ask questions. Just as there are a variety of levels and topics of GIS books, there are also a variety of levels and topics for online learning, so one should be able to find the subject matter and experience level tailored to most any need. Many of the online training opportunities are geared to specific GIS software, which can be very helpful when just getting started with a new application. One of the advantages to online learning is that a lot of the training can be done on your schedule, so you could do the training in the evenings or on weekends. Best of all, some of the basic courses or introductory courses are offered free of charge, and others are low cost. Generally, the pricing follows a scale from free to expensive, depending on the complexity of the material and/or the level of interaction with the instructor.

Go to to see a listing of a few universities that provide online GIS training. also has other useful information on where to go to learn about GIS, GIS software, and GIS data. Software vendors that offer GIS online training include Intergraph (, Autodesk ( and ESRI (

In addition to online training a number of software vendors, schools and universities, consultants, and private companies also provide class room training either at a training facility or private training at your location.

GIS on the Web
There is a wealth of GIS related information on the Web including data, Internet mapping applications, websites for GIS jobs, and websites for GIS organizations. The websites for GIS organizations provide resources for learning many things about GIS, such as who is doing what in GIS, information on GIS standards (, GIS certification (see the URISA site, training events and workshops, and lists of conferences. There are also many sites now such as The US Geological Survey (USGS) National Map Viewer ( ) where one can begin doing GIS immediately through the online mapping applications. These online mapping applications are built on GIS data, and allow the user to load GIS layers on the screen and make maps at the scale you want, in your area of interest. Some also provide tools for query and analysis or downloading data.

GIS Conferences
One of the best ways to learn about GIS is to attend GIS conferences. Conferences offer workshops, seminars, presentations, technical papers, hands on training, and most important, the opportunity to meet people who are doing GIS. Learning from others is one of the most effective ways to gain insights about GIS topics large and small, general and specific. The GIS community is one that is willing and eager to share information and knowledge (sharing information is what GIS is all about).

Some conferences are vendor sponsored, such as ESRI’s international GIS conference; others are sponsored by national or regional organizations such as the Geospatial Information Technology Industry (GITA or URISA (mentioned above). Others are sponsored by state GIS groups, such as the California GIS Conference (, and the Indiana GIS Conference (, or multi-state such as Northern Rockies GIS Conference ( Additionally, some conferences are geared toward specific disciplines or topics, such as utilities, conservation, or health GIS. Most GIS related websites will have listings for conferences. To find out which GIS conferences are coming up, call your local government or state GIS office or do a Web search on GIS conferences for your region or area of interest.

State or Local GIS Groups
State and local GIS groups provide opportunities to learn and become involved in GIS, and to network with others who are actively engaged in GIS. Each state and region has different GIS groups, with a variety of agendas. Some groups focus on data development and standardization, some on training opportunities, some on legislative or policy issues; others are geared to information sharing and problem solving. GIS groups range from vendor specific such as the Northwest ESRI Users Group, while others are purposefully vendor neutral such as the Bay Area Automated Mapping Association ( There are also GIS groups working on specific issues, such as the Open GIS Consortium (, which brings people together to work on open software applications for GIS.

For anyone interested in getting into GIS, raising one’s level of skill and knowledge about GIS or becoming more involved, there are many ways and lots of opportunities available. All it takes is a little initiative and time in order to get started. If you are not yet using GIS, the time to get started is now because GIS is inevitable in the 21st century workplace.

Rj Zimmer is registered in Oregon and Montana, and has more than 25 years of surveying experience in the private and public sectors. He is the GIS Consultant & GIS Center Manager for the City of Helena Lewis & Clark County Geographic Information Services Center in Montana.

A 1.636Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE

About the Author

Rj Zimmer

Rj Zimmer is a professional land surveyor and the GIS Director for DJ&A, PC - an engineering and surveying company in Helena, Montana. Mr. Zimmer has more than 20 years of experience managing and using GIS in local government and as a consultant. He began his surveying career in 1973 and is currently licensed in Oregon and Montana. He earned an engineering degree from Oregon State University, has published more than 50 articles on GIS and surveying, and teaches GIS courses at a local college.     Links: Contact RJ Article List Below