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GIS: GIS for Beginners

This guide is a space for all spatial data and GIS information at UNLV.

What is GIS?

GIS is short for Geographic Information Systems; it is a computer system that creates, manages, analyzes, and displays geographically referenced information. 

Why should I use GIS?

GIS helps users to better understand patterns and relationships through geographic context which can improve communication and efficiency which are critical to management and decision making. If the data you're analyzing depends on location or you think there may be insights to gain by visualizing the dataset's geographic positions then you should try using GIS.

How could I use GIS?

Maybe you think you could use GIS but you're unsure of how. Check out some examples of how researchers use GIS in their work. All of these tools can be used together or separately depending on your needs.

GIS Software

Desktop applications are what most people think of when they hear "GIS" and will be necessary if your project involves managing large datasets or data analysis. People who use GIS software regularly, include: urban planners, business analysts, environmental scientists, public health care professionals, etc.  If your future career involves GIS then it is essential to learn how to use GIS software. The most common programs are ArcGIS and QGIS. To learn more about these software then read our section about GIS software and tools.




StoryMaps make it easy to publish maps along with text, photos, and videos to tell the remarkable stories of a dataset. If you want an alternative to creating a slideshow presentation or want a website but have no coding experience then using StoryMaps is a good choice.


During World War 2 over 110,000 Japanese Americans were forced to relocate to internment camps out of fear they would sabotage the United States on behalf of Japan. This time of injustice is an important lesson on democracy and freedom within the U.S. that we should always remember. The ESRI team created a StoryMap about the Japanese internment camps.

GIS Web Applications

GIS web applications are interactive tools that allows an audience to explore the data and insights you want to share without any coding required. They are built to be intuitive and can be highly customizable.


The State of Hawaiʻi Department of Health needed to design a tool that would allow Hawaiʻi homeowners to see the prioritization status of their cesspools. It was important that the tool be easy to navigate and help explain why Hawaiʻi mandated all cesspools are converted by 2050. 

Hawaii Cesspool Prioritization Tool Screenshot

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