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How to Learn a GIS: Best Online Courses and Resources

Bryan Wirtz - December 29, 2020


If you’ve ever spent time exploring Google Earth, then you know about the impressive detail possible with today’s mapping programs. You can hover over Mt. Vesuvius, browse streets in Paris, and even get a bird’s-eye view of your house. So how does a company like Google create a map with all of these accurate geographic features?

For that, you can thank geographic data, aerial photographs, GPS, and satellite imagery. You can learn a ton about a place by analyzing different layers of data. However, keeping track of so many variables is hard.

That is why learning a geographic information system (GIS) can be very valuable. But what is a GIS? And what’s possible with spatial data? Keep reading to find out.

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What Is a GIS?

A geographic information system brings together many types of location data. But a GIS is much more than finding directions home. Geospatial technology is a varied and detailed field where professionals use software, hardware, people, and most importantly, data to form a symbolic picture of our world.

What Is a GIS Used For?

  • Organizing data. Above all else, GIS software organizes data and utilizes it in different ways. This data, whether road layouts or census information, creates a comprehensive and useful picture for a location. For example, GIS professionals combine data from hospitals and social media to determine health information for an area.
  • Understanding spatial patterns. GIS professionals use spatial data to observe an intimate and detailed view of nearly every part of the developed world. The term “spatial pattern” refers to any arrangement of objects or buildings on Earth. GIS analysts can even use particular groupings of infrastructure to draw interesting conclusions.
  • Marketing. Yes, marketing is a valuable byproduct of effective GIS usage. Companies can better market to certain groups based on location data. For example, a company may push swimming suit advertising at those living near water. Learning internet marketing is a great way to combine both of these disciplines for effective strategies.
  • Preparing for the future. A police department may use spatial data to determine crime rates in a neighborhood. Or the government may use different GIS maps to determine a region’s risk for wildfire. GIS software allows analysts to prepare for the future.

Types of GIS Technology

GIS technology includes a lot of interesting and cutting-edge tools. Let’s dive deeper into some key geospatial technologies.

Remote Sensing

You may be familiar with remote sensing. This is when an area’s characteristics are recorded without physical contact. One most prominent example is satellite imagery. Google Maps’ satellite view shows users detailed pictures of an area while remaining a great distance away.

Remote sensing is very useful. GIS analysts can use it to determine weather forecasts, city growth, and to map different topographies. And they can do it all from a distance.

Vector Data

Vector data is very important for GIS software. This data includes polygons, points, and other geometric representations to describe our world. The boundaries of a state or county in one type of example. When we look at a map, we’re seeing vector data.

Raster Data

This refers to data like satellite imagery, surface information, and aerial photography. This information can include the integrity of an area’s soil, temperatures, and other real-world data.

Raster data is split into two subsets: discrete and continuous. And it’s composed of cells and pixels that can represent a single value in an area. For example, one pixel may represent the temperature in a city.

Learning a GIS

Three men consulting a tablet screen
Learning how to use GIS data can open up a whole new world of possibilities.

Now that you know a little more about a GIS, what does it take to master this impressive technology?  We’ll sketch out a path and provide some great resources like GIS certificates and degree programs to help you get started.

How Long Does It Take to Learn a GIS?

While it will take much longer to master certain data measuring techniques, you can learn GIS software in only two weeks.

Remember, there is GIS programming involved so first learning some of the best programming languages may give you a better foundation.

How to Learn a GIS: Step-by-Step

Let’s take a look at a step-by-step guide to learning a GIS.

  1. Familiarize yourself with the software. With GIS software, as with any piece of software, you first need to become accustomed to it. The only way to extrapolate data and answer interesting questions about our world is by first understanding these programs.
  2. Take a GIS training course. While you may be able to learn a lot of GIS features without proper training, you’ll still be in hobby mode. To become a professional, you’ll need to enroll in classes and GIS certificate programs.
  3. Experiment. Once you have a good grasp of the fundamentals, go ahead and experiment with data. Learning statistics can be a huge help here. Knowing margins of error, linear regression, and how to use data tables are tricks of the trade while working with a GIS.
  4. Take advantage of resources. The internet is full of great blogs, videos, and other helpful guides that can make learning a GIS easier. We will show you some solid resources to explore later on.

The Best GIS Courses and Training

There are many different ways to learn GIS. While some can master the basics on their own, online GIS courses are likely your best bet. Let’s look at some great options available to you.

Best Online GIS Courses

Learning at your own pace and with great instructors make these the best online GIS courses around.

Fundamentals of Remote Sensing and Image Analysis

  • Provider: Udemy
  • Length: 3 hours
  • Prerequisites: None
  • Price: $95

Remote sensing is one of the most important aspects of GIS software. Put simply, if you want a map of any detail, you’ll need remote sensing.

Enter this Udemy course from geospatial data scientist Alemayehu Midekisa. Students learn the basics, importance, and functions of remote sensing. There are 11 sections, culminating in a final GIS project that combines aerial photographs, geographic data, and remote sensing.

This is a great way to familiarize yourself with the basics of GIS software and some of the larger concepts behind geospatial technology.

Introduction to GIS for Developers

  • Provider: Pluralsight
  • Prerequisites: None
  • Price: Subscription

This introduction is the perfect start to any GIS analyst career. Author Jason Hine takes you through the “what” and “why” of a GIS. The course teaches the basic concepts to advanced coding techniques used for spatial data.

Best Free GIS Courses

What if you’re not sure this is the career for you? That’s where free GIS courses help you decide with minimal investment. These programs include lessons on real GIS software as well as more broad topics regarding remote sensing.

Fundamentals of GIS

  • Provider: Coursera
  • Length: 4 weeks
  • Prerequisites: None
  • Price: Free

This course, taught by UC Davis geospatial applications researcher Nick Santos, gives beginners a great chance to learn all there is about GIS software. Over four units spanning one week each, participants will become more adept at using different parts of GIS software.

Students create map books as well as learn how to efficiently read and analyze a ton of data. From week one to week four, you’ll start with pen and paper and end with using GIS software to create your own work.

Remote Sensing of Wildfires

  • Provider: edX
  • Length: 4 weeks
  • Prerequisites: None
  • Price: Free

This very specific, yet important, course about the GIS tackles the issue of climate. While a GIS can help market items, answer questions about different types of data and more, predicting climate change and wildfires can save lives.

In this course from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, you will learn the integral role that remote sensing and satellite imagery play in curbing wildfires. This course teaches you about GIS software as well as the cultural, economic, and ecological impacts of wildfires in Alaska.

Getting Started with GIS

  • Provider: Esri
  • Length: 3 hours and 30 minutes
  • Prerequisites: None
  • Price: Free

From Esri Academy comes a great, short and free course in GIS software. You will engage in making maps, data evaluation, visual analysis, and GPS analysis. This GIS training resource is perfect for exploring what a GIS professional does.

To complete assignments and learn properly, you will need software like ArcMap.

Best GIS Books

Learning basics from online courses is all well and good, but having the source material can help you become a GIS professional. Check out some of these best-selling GIS books.

Learning Geospatial Analysis With Python: Understand GIS Fundamentals and Perform Remote Sensing Data Analysis Using Python , Joel Lawhead


One of the key aspects of GIS work is programming. Using a great programming language like Python is how you make the most out of geographic data.

Making maps with vector and raster data requires programming. In this book, Joel Lawhead gives you the tools to combine Python and GIS principles for your success in the field. You’ll also learn to use PostGIS, QGIS, and PROJ.

GIS Fundamentals: A First Text on Geographic Information Systems , Paul Bolstad

This definitive introductory text to GIS software introduces the reader to some essential concepts and tools.

Filled with figures, worksheets, and end-of-chapter problems, in this book readers will learn about various programs and theories in GIS analysis.

By the end of the book, readers will know how to analyze different types of data, use computer-based tools like ArcMap and more.

GIS Certificates

Enrolling in various GIS certificate programs can net you huge benefits. GIS software is an impressive tool to master and GIS certificates prove your skill. Let’s look at some available GIS certificates.

Graduate Certificate in GIST

Offered through the Spatial Sciences Institute at USC’s Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, this certificate is top-notch. The program even takes students on crucial fieldwork outings to better understand the nuance of geographic data.

Students end their certificate program by traveling to Catalina Island and observing natural land features, terrain, topographical maps, and more. This will surely make key concepts in a GIS stick.

Certificate in Geographic Information Systems (GIS)

Tufts University offers this comprehensive GIS certificate. This program focuses on data analytics , especially concerning geographic data.

Earning this certificate could land you a job in multiple research and data-related fields. Learn how to become an environmental scientist or GIS analyst by building a foundation in GIS software. This GIS certificate shows how geographic data can even shape public policy.

Best Online GIS Resources

There are tons of blogs, video tutorials, and more dealing with GIS software and geographic data. Check some out below.

GISLounge

This is easily the best GIS resource on the internet. The GIS Lounge includes blog posts, maps, events, tutorials, and even job resources.

It’s the perfect place to immerse yourself in the world of GIS software and even search for great GIS internships and careers.

In a recent blog post, The Potential Role of GIS in COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution , GIS analysts and professionals show how spatial data and patterns can impact COVID vaccine distribution. Detailed hospital and healthcare information compiled by GIS professionals can be a valuable tool in healing a community.

Harvard University’s Center for Geographic Analysis

Like the GIS Lounge, the iconic Harvard University also has a wealth of information. In particular, Harvard offers detailed tutorials to help learn ArcMap and other GIS software. Resources also include videos and workshops. Meant as a teaching resource for professors, anyone can access this information for free.

Should You Study GIS?

Cell Phone showing map data from the inside windshield of a car
Is harnessing spatial data all it’s cracked up to be?

The world around us is starting to look closer because of geographic data. If it weren’t for GIS professionals, analysts, and other data scientists, we likely wouldn’t know much about faraway locales besides their names.

With GIS software, people are capable of a tremendous amount of innovation. Discovering high-crime areas, potential weather disasters, and more are all trademarks of effective GIS practices.

If this technology fascinates you then follow our map to learn a GIS. The whole world awaits.

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Bryan Wirtz

About the author: As a Career Karma writer, Bryan takes on topics such as career transitions, roles in technology, and higher education. A Philadelphia native, Bryan attended Penn State University, where he earned his undergraduate degree in integrated social sciences. Bryan has contributed to a range of publications related to education, software development, and financial guidance, including StudyOfViolence.com and GameDesigning.org.

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