What is GIS. GIS stands for geographic information systems. Which begs the questions, what are geographic information systems? Geographic information systems, or GIS for short, is an integrated system of computer hardware, GIS software, data storage, data input hardware, information output hardware, GIS data, and trained GIS personal linking attribute data to spatial locations.

This series of tutorial exercises/videos will not cover the theory or deeper knowledge of GIS science. They serve as a crash course or refresher in creating your first map using esri’s ArcGIS Desktop software. Specifically, these tutorial videos will help you create a figure ground map, with parcel boundaries. A figure ground map is a two-dimensional map of an urban space that shows the relationship between built and unbuilt space, often used by architects, landscape architects, urban designers, and planners (an example is provided below). Please note that esri is not the only GIS software available, but it is the industry leader in geospatial applications.

For examples of what you can do with ArcGIS, check out my Introduction to GIS link under in my Portfolio. Here you will find past student work GIS project examples.

Figure ground


Feel free to use your own data to follow along with the tutorial videos or you can download the data I use in the link below.

Click here to download files

**Please note: Current students,  download all GIS data files from our course website links, not the ones listed above.

Tutorial outline

The tutorials are organized as follows:

  1. Topic 1: Data types
  2. Topic 2: Finding data
  3. Topic 3: Data management
  4. Topic 4: Data backup
  5. Topic 5: ArcGIS template setup
  6. Topic 6: Mapping folders and adding data
  7. Topic 7: Basic data symbolization
  8. Topic 8: Basic page layout
  9. Topic 9: Basic map export

Topic 1: Data types

To work with maps on a computer requires developing methods to store different types of map and tabular data. As a result there are many different types of GIS data; however, in my classes we tend to focus on two data model types,  vector and raster. Vector and raster data models store spatial and attribute data, but they do it in different ways. Both systems are georeferenced, meaning that the information is tied to a specific location on the earth’s surface. We have a variety of coordinate systems at our disposal for ensuring our data is in the correct location. For this tutorial series I have used the Colorado State Plane System in feet with the Northern region of Colorado. However, students in my regional design classes should use the following coordinate system: ****Insert coordinate system here****

Vector data uses a series of x-y locations to store information (see image below). Adobe Illustrator and AutoCAD are two other vector driven programs, although they are not GIS software. Three basic vector objects exist: points, lines, and polygons. A point feature is used to represent objects that have no dimensions or a single point like the location of a well. Line features represent objects in one dimensions, such as utility or street center lines. Polygons are used to represent two-dimensional areas, such as a parcel, state, or building. In all cases the features are a collection of one or more x-y coordinate locations. Typically, vector data will also have tabular attributes attached to provide more detailed information.

Raster is data is represented as a series of small squares called cells or pixels (see image below). Non-GIS raster programs include Adobe Photoshop or Gimp. Each pixel contains a numeric code indicating an attribute, and the raster is stored as an array of numbers. A discrete raster may carry information where each number represents discrete information, such as a landcover. While, quantitative rasters carry continuous numerical data, such as digital elevation models. In a raster each pixel is referenced in a row and column, while the starting pixel has a series of x-y coordinates to reference its location on the earth.

I encourage you to read more about GIS data, but this is enough to get you started.

The image immediately below, courtesy of Bolstad ( illustrates how various phenomena are depicted using vector and raster datasets.

Data types

Topic 2: Finding data

Additional Resources:

In order to find Wisconsin GIS data I use the following resources:

  1. First and foremost you should do some legwork on you own to find data using the methods illustrated in the video above.
  2. As a student you have access to UW-Madison’s map library resources:
  3. Check with your clients or local government offices, but only after you have compiled a list of needs and searched the internet for it and couldn’t find it. Many times you just need to pick up the phone.
  4. For census data I always use:

Topic 3: Data management

Topic 4: Data backup

Topic 5: ArcGIS and template setup

Topic 6: Mapping folders and adding data

Topic 7: Basic data symbolization

Topic 8: Basic page layout

Topic 9: Basic map export


These tutorial videos serve as a crash course allowing you to create basic maps in esri’s ArcGIS Desktop ArcMap. However, GIS is a complex and complicated system of software and hardware. I encourage you to explore other resources as your skills advance. Some of my favorite are:

  • Books:
    • Mitchell, A. (1999). The ESRI Guide to GIS Analysis Volume 1: Geographic Patterns & Relationships (Vol. 1). Book, Redlands, California: ESRI Press
    • Mitchell, A. (2009). The ESRI Guide to GIS Analysis Volume 2: Spatial Measurements & Statistics (Vol. 2). Book, Redlands, California: ESRI.
    • Price, M. (2015). Mastering ArcGIS. Book, New York, NY: McGraw Hill.