Geographic Information System (GIS)


A geographic information system (GIS) is a compilation of hardware, software, and data that enables users to

  • Produce high-quality maps at a variety of scales
  • Store and maintain a large quantity of geographically referenced information
  • Visualize and simplify complex data
  • Perform complex analyses on data
  • Easily make changes to data

GIS helps streamline the process of analyzing a variety of data types. Data can be in the form of reports, maps, tables, or historical records. These documents can be located in a variety of places and in many formats. A GIS is able to integrate all of these resources for display and analysis and share this information with many users for all types of projects.


Although GIS technology is relatively mainstream within coastal resource management, the integration of social science data into these maps or spatial analyses is an emerging trend within the natural resource management community. GIS can be useful for documenting human use patterns, identifying culturally sensitive areas, prioritizing regions for additional public access, or highlighting demographic trends within a community.

GIS also provides a mechanism to encourage stakeholder participation for site selection and impact analysis. Within a public meeting, for example, users may be permitted to view and interact with the data as management issues are discussed. GIS functionality may also be customized in a decision support tool that allows stakeholders to weigh the importance of certain issues or data sets and select regions based on assigned criteria. Often, even groups with disparate views will identify regions of overlap among the selected areas, potentially providing common ground and making the issue less polarized.

GIS technology presents managers with the ability to capture stakeholder input for a specific region and integrate that information with existing natural science data for a more comprehensive analysis. GIS provides a powerful mechanism to highlight and communicate concerns regarding environmental threats or proposed management measures from the perspective of both the local community and the scientific or management community.

In order to be viewed by and analyzed within a GIS, the information must be geographically referenced, i.e., associated with a specific point location (latitude/longitude), line (road, river), or region (zip code, town, county). Often raw social science data must be manipulated to provide this geographic reference. For example, data gathered from a questionnaire can be linked to existing spatial data, such as census tracts or blocks, counties, or zip codes (see map).

GIS can be used to display and analyze a variety of spatially referenced data types. Examples of data than can be used within a GIS to enhance social science information include:

  • Aerial photography
  • Satellite imagery
  • Global Positioning System (GPS) data
  • Bathymetric and topographic data
  • Shoreline change data (LIDAR)
  • Habitat data
  • Fish and wildlife data
  • Landscape features

The ability to review such a broad range of information about a specific location can lead to improved decision-making. In particular, the combination of natural and social science data may highlight conflicting uses and identify relationships between human use patterns and observed impacts.


  • Helps users visualize complex or inaccessible data

  • May indicate links between people or between people and the environment that may not otherwise have been identified

  • Is effective for outreach and education

  • May help visualize "what if" scenarios

  • Does not require advanced technical expertise to conduct basic mapping functions


  • Cost of data and software packages may be prohibitive

  • Cost of experts, such as GIS specialists or programmers, may be prohibitive

  • Collection of data may require specialized equipment or software

  • Results are limited to the amount and quality of available data

  • Data may be hard to access because of confidentiality or proprietary issues

Expertise Needed

Basic manipulation and simple map display within a GIS can be performed with minimal experience; however, access to training allows users to conduct more complex analyses. Many natural resource areas already have access to the required software and personnel. Still, depending on the needs of the program and the resources available, it may be helpful to seek additional expertise through a partnership agreement or external contract.

Related Partners

NOAA is a federal agency focused on the condition of the oceans and the atmosphere. It plays several distinct roles within the Department of Commerce.

Resources: Websites