How to become a specialist in Geographic Information Systems (GIS)


What are GIS and what are they used for? Maria Osorio, a specialist in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and an expert in ArcGIS version 10.0 explains it all, including the uses of this technology and how to become a specialist in GIS yourself!

What are Geographic Information Systems (GIS)?

At their core, information systems constitute sets of data that can be analyzed by means of computer tools (software) that are incorporated into equipment (hardware). If we add to this that the stored information can be defined spatially, then the concept of Geographic Information Systems is formed.
Through Geographic Information Systems you can capture, store, consult, analyze and present all kinds of information that have geographical references in order to know the spatial behavior of the data and thus solve situations and the real world through consultation and analysis of previously-loaded information.

GIS is a system used for gathering, managing and analyzing geographic and/or spatial data.

You can use GIS in different areas, such as urban planning, geology, business marketing, transportation, etc. But ultimately, this technology is always associated with geography.

GIS for beginners

Currently there are many GIS; some are open source and others are private. The first private systems were generated because a single GIS does not have as many tools as there are research fields. Therefore, users and developers decided to create their own local tools according to their areas of study. Private GIS, although they contain a large number of applications capable of solving any problem, have a very high price.
To start using a GIS, whether free or private, it is necessary to first know the software interface as well as its basic tools. This is achieved quickly by pressing the F1 key that will display a window with a series of information that answers the most frequent questions that come upon a new GIS user.
Having already an adequate grip on the software interface, we proceed to begin understanding how to include information that can be by means of attribute tables, data layers represented by lines, polygons and points, images and others. In addition, this information can be presented in two formats:

  • Vector: the discrete representation of reality
  • Raster: represents reality in a continuous manner

Symbology and labeling are also used as main tools in a project.

Symbology assigns characteristics such as color, size and thickness of lines, points and polygons. You can also place different symbols that represent each category of a layer defined by unique attributes. Labeling, on the other hand, identifies an element that has previously loaded its information in an attribute table.

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Basic uses of GIS

The main uses of GIS involve georeferencing, which is a process by means of which a spatial positioning with its respective reference system is assigned to a digital or raster image. For this, well-known control points are located which are also displayed in the image.                                                                                       
Another use refers to the digitalization that consists of drawing, by means of the tools of the software interface, on satellite or raster images generating vector information that will contain geographic data, geometry and attributes associated with the type and size of the data.
There are also topologies through which the spatial relationships between elements are managed, analyzing and showing precise results. These topologies can be geodatabased where a set of rules and properties are presented to define the spatial and map relationships that are temporary relationships within an editable project.
In regards to design, it depends on the different information sources and data formatting. At this point, data is structured and it will be decided the final format - which in most cases are maps.

Most common GIS applications:

  • Mapping
  • Urban and transportation planning
  • Agricultural applications
  • Flood damage estimation
  • Traffic management
  • Business and marketing 
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GIS and programming

Programming is essential for those users that would like to become GIS specialists. Thanks to programming you will be able to work much more efficiently, saving time in tedious processes. Although it requires more dedication, the benefits that you obtain will be worth it.
Python is the best alternative to start with GIS programming because it’s an object-oriented programming language. It is developed so that it’s easy to learn and its implementation is spontaneous and versatile.
For example, ESRI, who is the creator of ArcGIS, developed a programming module called ArcPy, which is a function book containing geoprocesses that are very easy to learn.
Through programming, many functions can be incorporated that greatly simplify access to information, turning it into an efficient and effective tool when requesting appropriate and precise data.
Other languages that can be learned and go very well with GIS are:

  • JavaScript
  • PHP
  • CSS3
  • HTML5

All of them fulfill important functions when wanting to build a model of their own tools.

Further technical skills that you will need to become a GIS specialist:

  • Design software: AutoCAD
  • Query software: Microsoft Access, SQL
  • Development environment: .NET framework, C, VBA

In the end, the most important thing is to know the GIS environment that best suits the user. Then, manage the tools that the software has and once all this is done, you can start with the proposed project. And as you move forward, you will learn the use of each process and the best tools to streamline and deliver better results.

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