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GU-Q: How-to Use Geographic Information Systems (GIS)

Includes how to find GIS data, how to use GIS software including ArcGIS, ArcGIS Online, and Google Maps, and how to use data with GIS.

General Data for the World

  • LandScan Global
    At approximately 1 km resolution (30" X 30"), LandScan is the finest resolution global population distribution data available and represents an ambient population (average over 24 hours). You must be on the MIT Network to access this data. It is also in Geoweb.
    Free spatial data for countries around the world
  • GeoCommons
  • NGA GEOnet Names Server (GNS)
    The Geographic Names Server is the official repository of standard spellings of all foreign place names, sanctioned by the United States Board on Geographic Names. The database also contains variant spellings (cross-references), which are useful for finding purposes.
  • OpenStreetMap
    OpenStreetMap is a map of the world, created by people like you and free to use under an open license.
    **See how to download OSM data from Trimble:
  • United Nations Environment Programme Data Explorer
    The Environmental Data Explorer is the authoritative source for data sets used by UNEP and its partners in the Global Environment Outlook (GEO) report and other integrated environment assessments. Its online database holds more than 500 different variables, as national, subregional, regional and global statistics or as geospatial data sets (maps), covering themes like Freshwater, Population, Forests, Emissions, Climate, Disasters, Health and GDP. Display them on-the-fly as maps, graphs, data tables or download the data in different formats.
  • Datasets from the United Nations Environment Programme
    Includes global ecoregions, wetlands, distribution of coral reefs, mangroves, and more.
  • Geo-Referencing of Ethnic Groups
    Polygons to represent ethnic groups around the world
  • Natural Earth
    Natural Earth is a resource for making custom maps. Data include administrative boundaries, parks and protected areas, populated places, hydrology, and bathymetry in vector format. There is also raster data for land cover, shaded relief, ocean water, and drainages with lakes.
  • Center for Satellite Based Crisis Information
    Presents a service of the German Remote Sensing Data Center (DFD) of DLR. It provides a 24/7 service for the rapid provision, processing, and analysis of satellite imagery during natural and environmental disasters for humanitarian relief activities and civil security issues worldwide. The resulting satellite-based information products are provided to relief organisations and public authorities and are also freely available on the ZKI website.
  • CShapes
    CShapes is a new dataset that provides historical maps of state boundaries and capitals in the post-World War II period. The dataset is coded according to both the Correlates of War and the Gleditsch and Ward (1999) state lists, and is therefore compatible with a great number of existing databases in the discipline. Provided in a geographic data format, CShapes can be used directly with standard GIS software, allowing a wide range of spatial computations. In addition, we supply a CShapes package for the R statistical toolkit.
  • Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC)
    SEDAC, the Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center, is one of the Distributed Active Archive Centers (DAACs) in the Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS) of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. SEDAC focuses on human interactions in the environment.
  • ESRI Data & Maps
    This set of data includes many layers for the world, such as country boundaries, UTM zones, water, roads, railroads, airports, major cities, topography/bathymetry, and a nighttime view.
  • Global Administrative Boundaries
    GADM is a spatial database of the location of the world's administrative areas (or adminstrative boundaries) for use in GIS and similar software. Administrative areas in this database are countries and lower level subdivisions.
  • World Resources Institute
    GIS data on Population & poverty, Agriculture, Land cover & land form, Base data, Elevation, Rainfall, Biodiversity & wildlife, Tourism, and Water
  • Atlas of Urban Expansion
    The Atlas of Urban Expansion provides the geographic and quantitative dimensions of urban expansion and its key attributes in cities the world over. Includes changes in city boundaries over time and land cover.
  • Conservation GIS Data
    GIS data and maps for The Nature Conservancy's core conservation datasets
  • World Wildlife Fund - Global Lakes and Wetlands Database
  • HydroSHEDS


Boundaries and Locations

  • Global Administrative Areas (GADM) - Boundaries of subnational administrative districts.​
  • GeoNames - Over 8 million geographical features with name, feature class, and latitude and longitude.​
  • Natural Earth - Generalized boundaries for political and physical features in shapefile format. Useful for map-making but not for applications requiring precision. Can also be downloaded as subsets from WeoGeo.
  • Common and Fundamental Operational Datasets Registry - Shapefiles of data sets necessary for humanitarian response, listed by country. From UN OCHA.​
  • GISTPortal - Requires free registration.​
  • CShapes - Historical national boundaries and capitals of the post-WWII period.
  • Length of International Boundaries - International boundary lengths between 1815 and 1997. In Excel or Stata format.​
  • OpenStreetMap Data Extracts - Extracts from crowd-sourced OpenStreetMap data.
  • U.S. Department of State's International Boundaries - Believed to be the most accurate available worldwide international boundary vector line file.

Economy & Society


  • IUCN Red List Spatial Data - Shapefiles of habitats of endangered species.
  • Data Basin - Biological and physical spatial datadownloadable in shapefile or GRID format. U.S. emphasis, but some international data sets. Requires free Esri Global Account.
  • Large Marine Ecosystems of the World - Ecosystem boundaries in shapefile and KML format.
  • Global Forest Watch Data Explorer
  • Global 200 - WWF’s Global 200 project analyzed global patterns of biodiversity to identify a set of the Earth's terrestrial, freshwater, and marine ecoregions that harbor exceptional biodiversity and are representative of its ecosystems.
  • Global Forest Change, 2000-2012 - Time-series analysis of 654,178 Landsat 7 ETM+ images in characterizing global forest extent and change from 2000 through 2012


  • HIV Spatial Data Repository - Subnational demographic estimates as well as national and subnational HIV prevalence, in shapefile format. Requires free registration.
  • Measure DHS - Georeferenced data from Demographic and Health Surveys..

Farming & Agriculture

Other Global Data

  • ArcGIS Online Services - This is another avenue to obtain free GIS data while working with ArcMap. You may want to check this site when looking for global imagery or other global data that is not available to you locally. While this data is generally larger resolution i.e. less detailed and you cannot download the data, you can use it and make good use of it. Connect using the URL of for the data, and for geocoding and other tasks.
  • CGIAR-CSI CRU-TS 2.1 Climate Database - The CRU TS 2.1 Climate Database is available at -AND- Global Climate dataset in ArcGIS Grid format availalbe for free download. Resolution is at 0.5 degrees resolution. "The nine climate variables available through this dataset are: daily mean, minimum and maximum temperature, diurnal temperature range, precipitation, wet day frequency, frost day frequency, vapor pressure and cloud cover."
  • CIESIN &SEDAC & WDC (from Columbia University) - A very rich website with lots of GIS data from Columbia University portals such as CIESIN (Center for International Earth Science Information Network), SEDAC (Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center), and the World Data Center for Human Interactions.
  • Digital Soil Map of the World - Digital Soil Map of the World available for download in several formats from the GeoNetwork. 2007, scale of 1:5,000,000 from FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN). "vector data set is based on the FAO-UNESCO Soil Map of the World".
  • DIVA GIS - Data - An excellent site for GIS data for almost every country in the world. Very easy to use, comprehensive and a great starting point for files on administrative boundaries, water, roads, railroads, elevation, landcover, population, climate and a gazetteer.
  • GADM, global administrative areas (boundaries) - GADM is a database of the location of the world's administrative areas (boundaries). GADM describes where these administrative areas are (the "spatial features"), and for each area it provides some attributes, foremost being the name and in some cases variant names. The data are in ESRI shapefile and geodatabase format.
  • gData - An excellent site for GIS data for almost every country in the world. Very easy to use, comprehensive and a great starting point for files on administrative boundaries, water, roads, railroads, elevation, landcover, population, climate and a gazetteer.
  • GeoCommons - A free tool that allows you to make maps from data they have and data you have! You can also download some data as shapefiles, CSVs or KMLs.
  • GeoData Portal - United Nations - Supply of data sets used by UNEP- has 450+ variables with national, subregional, regional and global statistics and geospatial data sets. Themes include Freshwater, Population, Forests, Emissions, Climate, Disasters, Health and GDP. Dynamic searches for many different nations, regions, cities, etc.
  • GeoNames - An integrated geographical data resource with information on cities of 1000, 5000 and 15,000, postal codes, feature data and more. All data is free with a Creative Commons license.
  • GeoNetwork- The portal to spatial data and information - A product of the UN FAO, this site is a great place to look for data on political boundaries, agriculture, climate, fisheries, forestry, water, land cover/use, population data, soil info and topo info.
  • GIS-Lab: VMap0 data in shape-format - VMap0 (VMap level 0) data in shapefile format.
  • Global Climate Database - CGIAR-CSI CRU-TS 2.1 - This website offers free downloadable raster files for global climate from 1901 - 2002. It includes information on the daily mean, min/max temperature, diurnal temperature range, precipitation, wet & frost day frequencies, vapor pressure and cloud cover. Many thanks to Amanda Henderson at UNC for bringing this resource to our attention.
  • Global Land Cover Facility (GLCF) from the University of Maryland - Free Landsat data, searchable by path/row
  • Greenpeace World Intact Forest Landscapes - "This Greenpeace map is the first global assessment of remaining tracts of intact forest landscapes larger than 500 sq. km that are not fragmented by infrastructure, such as roads, settlements, waterways, pipelines, power lines etc. .. World Intact Forest Landscapes map has been divided into blocks."
  • Gridded Population of the World - GPW v3 - Gridded Population of the World from SEDAC (Columbia). Get population or density.
  • Harvard Geospatial Library - This is a great resource to find over 6,500 raster and vector layers of GIS data from around the globe as well as many georeferenced historic maps. You can search by metadata, by location, type of data and topic.
  • HydroSHEDS - USGS - This site allows you to download hydrography GIS data for the globe. It takes some patience so be prepared!
  • Landcover products from the USGS - Landcover products include: National Land Cover Dataset 1992 (NLCD 92), MRLC2001 (Multi-Resolution Land Cover Data (LULC), Global Land Cover Characterization (GLCC), and AVHRR NDVI Composites.
  • LandScan - Gridded Global Population -This dataset is a 30x30 arc-second (approximately 1 km) gridded population of the world. You must request access to it through the creators, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Geographic Information Science & Technology section.
  • Map Library 
  • NatureServe: Animal Data for Download - This site has downloadable data from NatureServe, which includes distribution of birds and mammals of the western hemisphere, amphibians of the world, and U.S. fishes by watershed.
  • NCDC Geodata Portal - NCDC is the National Climatic Data Center. They are located in Asheville, NC. This is their Geodata Portal, where you can access geospatial climate data from web feature services.
  • NOAA/NGDC - Earth Observation Group - Defense Meteorological Satellite Progam Data Download - Data from NGDC: global poverty estimates, impervious surfaces, nighttime lights (and nighttime lights change over time), lights at night, night, global roads test data, coral reef proximity index, north american carbon program data, etc.
  • ReefBase :: Download GIS Dataset - A part of the Pacific Reef site - A free product of ReefBase which offers downloadable GIS data by country or theme. Excellent resource for looking at coral reefs and environmental threats to them around the world.
  • SEDAC - SEDAC, from Columbia University, is a well respected GIS data provider, with a wide variety of high quality datasets available.
  • Shuttle Radar Topography Mission - Download data from SRTM here. Version 2 is available- it comes with the water bodies and coastlines.
  • Tanzania GIS Users Group - "The Tanzania Geographic Information Systems Users Group (TZGISUG) is a semi-formal network of GIS practitioners and users who are either based in or are working on GIS issues related to Tanzania. The purpose of the TZGISUG is to provide a “place” where constituents of the network can share knowledge and information and generally provide support on a peer-to-peer basis on variety of technical issues."
  • U.S. Geological Survey World Petroleum Assessment 2000 - U.S. Geological Survey World Petroleum Assessment 2000 - Description and Results provides spatial data for download. USGS Digital Data Series - DDS-60.
  • United Nations Global Resource Information Database - An excellent list of global products from the UNEP spatial data clearinghouse. There is Africa, Asia, Latin American, Caribbean, global, Brazilian and US specific population datasets on this page. Use the Related Links, Clearinghouse to find more GIS data.
  • USGS Geographic Data Download - Downloadable GIS data for the United States, with some datasets also for the entire world. Includes DEMs, DLGs, the National Elevation Dataset (NED), GTOPO30 and the HYDRO1KM datasets.
  • USGS Mineral Resources On-Line Spatial Data: Downloads - Download data about mines- US and International.
  • USGS Seamless Data Distribution System - Elevation (NED, 1/3 & 1/9 NED, SRTM), Land Cover, Orthoimagery.
  • World Database on Protected Areas - The World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA) is compiled from multiple sources and is the most comprehensive global dataset on marine and terrestrial protected areas available. It is a joint venture of UNEP and IUCN, produced by UNEP-WCMC and the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas (IUCN-WCPA) working with governments and collaborating NGOs.
  • World Database on Protected Areas (WCPA) from UNEP - This database allows you to download "all the GIS and attribute data for nationally designated marine and terrestrial protected areas with and without IUCN Protected Area Management Categories assigned, non-designated national protected areas and areas defined under international conventions and agreements."
  • WORLDCLIM - Global Climate Grids with spatial resolution of a square km.

Environmental & Elevation


  • GTFS Data Exchange - The General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) is a format for sharing public transportation schedules and associated locations. Consult this tutorial to convert to shapefile or KML.
  • Global Roads - Combines the best available roads data by country into a global roads coverage, joined topologically at the borders.
  • World Port Index - Location, characteristics of, and the facilities and services offered by major ports and terminals in tabular or shapefile format.
  • Old World Trade Routes
  • Travel Time to Major Cities - In Esri GRID format.

Atmosphere & Climate