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Introduction to Geographic Information Systems (GIS)

Collect your own data

Want to collect your own data? This LibGuide will help you figure out what you'll need.


GIS data collection tools can be categorized into 3 general categories: GPS units, mobile devices, and digitizers. Each of these categories has a broad range of devices with different capabilities and price points. To determine which device is right for you, start off by asking yourself these questions:


  • How important is location accuracy?
  • What will the device be used for?
  • What are the deliverables?


Once you've answered these questions, chances are you've realized what your project's priorities are. Click the tabs below to get a better idea which of the 3 different types of GIS data collection tools you should use. If you're still conflicted please reach out to our GIS and Data Visualization Specialist.

-The library does not carry handheld GPS devices.

GPS Units

You might want to choose a GPS unit as your data collection device if location accuracy is very important or your project involves being in the wilderness. There are three categories of GPS units: recreational grade, mapping grade, and survey grade.

Handheld GPS Unit

Recreational Grade: Recreational grade is the least expensive grade and generally accurate to within 20 feet (6.1 meters). It is also readily available at most general stores and online retailers costing anywhere from $100 to $600.

Mapping Grade: Mapping grade GPS receivers generally range from $1,000 to $3,000 and are generally less user-friendly. These are typically used when a consumer wants to achieve an accuracy range of 3 feet (1 meter).

Survey Grade: These receivers are the most accurate and the most expensive. They can achieve 1 centimeter positional accuracy and are often used by professional surveyors.

Professional surveyor with surveyor grade equipment

Mobile Devices

Relying on mobile devices can be convenient due to a wide range of factors such as: accessibility, user-friendliness, physical storage, versatility, and safety. Common disadvantages are inconsistent location accuracy, battery consumption, fragility, and costs associated with the storage and transfer of data.

  • If you're using ArcGIS, check out ESRI's Field Maps app.
  • Other popular free GPS apps are Avenza Maps and GPS Fields Area Measure.

-All of the suggested apps are available on iOS and Android. 


Digitizers are devices that capture, process, or transform raster and digital data. These devices include digitizing tablets, drones, and scanners. Digitizers are useful if you have a physical map and want to display it digitally or if you want to include an aerial photo in your map. 

digitizing tablet and tablet pen         


Which software should I use?

There are many different GIS software to choose from but the most commonly used ones are ArcGIS and QGIS. If you're having trouble deciding which to use, view the chart below. Keep in mind that it is recommended for members of an organization to use the same software the organization primarily uses.

What if I want an ArcGIS license on my own computer?

Contact UNLV OIT for ArcGIS Licensing help.

What if I want QGIS on my own computer?

QGIS is free and easy to download. Visit to download this powerful open source software. Check out our page on QGIS for more information.


I don't know how to use GIS software! Is there a way I can get training?

Yes! There are many ways to learn how to use GIS software. Check out our pages on ArcGIS or QGIS for online resources.


What if I took a course but still have a question about specific functionality of ArcGIS?

Email me at


What if all I have is a bunch of addresses?

Use the U.S. Census Geocoder to convert them to geographic coordinates you can map. 

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