Geographic Information Systems (GIS)

Getting Started

This guide is a collection of all the geospatial resources that are available to you from the Academic Data Centre. The ADC is the central on-campus location for GIS services , including accessing to geospatial data and GIS software, GIS consultation and instruction. This guide provides you with many of the geospatial resources you need to get started as well as continue using GIS in your study, research or teaching.
What is GIS?

A geographic information system (GIS) integrates hardware, software, data, methods, and people for capturing, managing, analyzing, and displaying all forms of geographically referenced information (geospatial data).
Rooted in the science of geography, GIS integrates many different kinds of data layers using spatial location and derives new sets of information by applying a sophisticated set of spatial operators. GIS allows us to visualize, question, analyze, and interpret data in many ways that reveal patterns, relationships, and trends in the form of maps, 3D scenes, apps, tables and charts. 

What is GIS/Geospatial data?

Data about objects, events, or phenomena that have been in relation to the surface of the earth - e.g., latitude and longitude coordinates, street address, postal codes, area codes, city name, or anything else that designates a specific spot or area on the surface of the earth. Most geospatial data also contains attributes information to indicate what is it about the location. Using geospatial data, you know both where things are and what their characteristics are.

Geospatial data are represented in a GIS using two main types of data models: raster data and vector data. Each model has its pros and cons and tends to fit certain types of data and applications better than others. A list of the most common GIS file formats can be found here (the Carleton University MacOdrum library).

Data ModelCharacteristics Most Suitable ForCommon File Formats
VectorUse points, lines, polygons to represent geographic featuresDiscrete geographic entities such as roads, rivers, buildings, and administrative boundariesShapefiles, KML, AutoCAD drawing files.
RasterUse grid cells to represent geographic featuresContinues geographic phenomena such as snow depth, elevation, temperature, precipitationJPEG, GeoTIFF, MrSID

GIS Glossaries

GIS Dictionary - ESRI
Dictionary of Abbreviations and Acronyms in GIS, Cartography, and Remote Sensing - Earth Sciences & Map Library, University of California, Berkeley
How can I use GIS?

Hundreds of thousands of organizations in a wide range of fields around the world are using GIS to visualize data, perform analysis, share information, and solve complex problems. For example, you can map and analyze the locations of crime incidents to identify target areas for prioritizing police resources in a city. By integrating and analyzing various layers of information (e.g., land cover, relative slope, distance to existing roads and streams, soil composition), you can calculate the suitability of places for a house development. And by employing image analysis, you can detect changes over time.

The analysis framework, tools, methods provided by GIS enable you to address critically important questions and decisions that are beyond the scope of simple visual analysis (e.g., mapping).

if your data has a geographic component (e.g., latitude and longitude coordinates, postal code, address, city, etc.), then you are most likely be able to use GIS. You can use it either as a visualization tool to communicate your research results to the audiences, or you can apply more in-depth spatial analysis to your data to lends new perspectives to your insight and decision-making.

We are more than happy to help get you started on your GIS journey. No matter what your background and experience are, we'll work with you towards incorporating GIS and digital mapping into your study and research.

Accessing Geospatial Data

Geospatial Data Sources

Geospatial data are available from a variety of sources. The Leddy library subscribes to numerous data licensed collections. These data files are available to faculty, students, and staff at University of Windsor for teaching, research, and institutional planning purposes. In addition to our holdings, there are a wide variety of web-based data sources, typically from government organizations. Please visit our geospatial data guide page for a complete listing of these datasets.

How to Search for Geospatial Data?

Here are some tips and tricks for searching for geospatial data.

  1. Define Your Research Question: Try to state your research question with describing what specific variable(s) you will use to answer the question. For example, I'm looking for the percentage of people living in low-income in areas where has been most hit by COVID-19 in the province of Ontario.
  2. Identify Your Unit of Analysis: Who or what is being described by your variable(s)? Do you need summary statistics or more micro-level data? You unit of analysis can be individuals/families/households, institutions (e.g., schools, companies), products, geographic areas (e.g., neighbourhoods, cities).
  3. Identify Time Frame and Frequency: For what point in time do you want to know about the variables you identified? Do you need only current or also historical data? How often do you want to know about them? Do you need data collected at regular intervals over time (time-series data)?
  4. Determine Your Area of Interest: What is the location you're interested in? It can be a neighbourhood, city, province/state, region, country etc.
  5. Think About Who May Have Collected the Data: It is often useful to consider if there are particular governmental bodies or organizations that must or would want to collect the data you want. They can be municipal, provincial/state, federal governments, international organizations, or interest groups.
  6. Try Different Search Channels: Our library geospatial data guide; the website or data portal for the government(s) or organization(s) you think might collect the data; open data portals for the area you're interested in; Google or another search engines (Be specific and use terms like GIS/geospatial/shapefiles as keywords).
  7. Be Flexible: Consider the data you want may not be geospatial. Things like facility-level pollutant releases to the environment, diabetes prevalence and incidence by Ontario public health units, median total household income by census tracts, or crime rates in City of Toronto may not be in GIS format. However, you can often find tabular data that either includes geographic information (e.g.: facilities' addresses) that can be geocoded or share a common geographic identifier (e.g., census tract id) as geospatial boundary files that allows you to join data tables to geospatial boundaries.
  8. Ask for Help: Still cannot find anything or having trouble locating a particular dataset? Email us for help.
      Adapted from Carleton University Macodrum Library's How to Search for GIS data and University of Michigan Library's Geospatial Data Guide.

GIS Software

ESRI Products
  • ArcGIS Pro: The latest professional desktop GIS application from Esri. With ArcGIS Pro, you can explore, visualize, and analyze data; create 2D maps and 3D scenes; and share your work to your ArcGIS Online.
  • ArcGIS Map: Esri's classic desktop GIS application. ArcMap and its companion application, ArcCatalog, as well as ArcGlobe and ArcScene, work together to provide a full spectrum of GIS capabilities.
  • ArcGIS Online: Esri's cloud-based mapping and analysis platform. You can use ArcGIS Online to explore and visualize 2D and 3D data, create web maps, 3D web scenes, web apps, notebooks and open data sites. It is easy to share content through ArcGIS Online with others inside and outside your organization. You can set up a free ArcGIS public account, which you can use to access ArcGIS Online with a limited set of functionality. You can also ask to become a member of the UWindsor's ArcGIS Online organization and grant you access to additional ArcGIS Online applications such as: Survey123, Collector for ArcGIS, Story Maps, Experience Builder, Dashboards, App Studio, Business Analyst, Community Analyst and more.
How to access: The Esri ArcGIS suite of products is available free of charge to current students, staff, and faculty at the University of Windsor. For more information or to request copies of the software, please contact the Esri University Site License Manager, Ms. Alice Grgicak-Mannion, a faculty member of the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research and the School of the Environment. Please note ArcGIS runs only on Windows platforms. Users of Macs or other operating systems need to install virtual machine software to install ArcGIS in a Windows environment.

QGIS is a free, open-source GIS software that allows you to create, edit, visualise, analyse and publish geospatial information on Windows, Mac, Linux, BSD and Andriod. To download QGIS and to access documentation, visit

Other Open-Source GIS Software

MapWindow GIS:
Whitebox GAT:
Check out this spreadsheet which provides details about feature support across a wide range of different open source desktop GIS tools

Web-based Mapping Tool

Google My Maps:
Mango Map:
GPS Visualizer:
World Map:

Check out this guide from the Carleton University MacOdrum library on different online mapping tools.

Open-Source Server for Publishing Geospatial Data


Other Software for Geospatial Analysis



GIS Support

GIS in the ADC

GIS specialist in the ADC can advise you on the best approaches for locating geospatial data, creating maps, using GIS software and analyzing your spatial data. Check out our GIS & Mapping Page for detailed information about these services. 

GIS at UWindsor

The Geographic Information Science Certificate Program in the School of the Environment offers a number of GIS courses.

GIS Resources Online
Check out our Learning Resources for GIS Guide for more information. 

Citing Geospatial Data and Resources 


Citing geospatial data/maps can be complex and may not easily conform to standard citation structure. We can answer general questions about citation practices but cannot check or verify if your citations are correct. It is good practice to confirm citation format and structure with course instructor, advisor, or publisher when possible.

Recommended Guides

Best Practices in Citation of Cartographic Materials - Association of Canadian Map Libraries and Archives (ACMLA)

How to Cite Statistics Canada Products (maps and geospatial data) - Statistics Canada

Scholars GeoPortal User Guide: Citing Maps and Geospatial Data - Scholars Portal

Citing Geospatial Data and Software - Carleton University

How to cite data - Michigan State University

Send us a message 

Your Contact

Carina Luo's picture
Geospatial & Data Analyst
(519) 253-3000 ext.3179
Leddy Library - 103 West Building