GIS software

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The umbrella term GIS software refers to a geographic information system application, which is software used to create, manage, analyze and display geospatial data on digital maps.[1] GIS software is an increasingly specialized industry, with applications often specifically designed to meet the needs of certain industries.[2]

GIS software categories

Often it is distinguished between the following types of GIS software[1]:

  • Desktop GIS are used to create, edit, manage, analyse and display geographic data. They are sometimes classified into three functionality categories:
    • GIS Viewer
    • GIS Editor
    • GIS Analyst
  • Spatial database management systems (Spatial DBMS) are used to store the data, but often also provide analysis and data manipulation functionality.
  • WebMap Servers are used to distribute maps over the Internet (see also for the Open Geospatial Consortium standards: WFS and WMS).
  • Server GIS provide basically the same functionality as desktop GIS but allow to access this functionality via networks (so-called geoprocessing).
  • WebGIS Clients are used for data display and to access analysis and query functionality from Server GIS over the internet or intranet. Usually one distinguishes between thin and thick client. Thin clients (e.g. a web browser used to display google maps) provide only display and query functionality while thick clients (e.g. Google Earth or a Desktop GIS) provide often additional tools for data editing, analysis and display.
  • Libraries and Extensions provide additional functionality that is not part of the basic GIS software because it may be not needed by the average user. Such additional functions can cover tools for terrain analysis (e.g. SEXTANTE), tools to read specific data formats (e.g. GDAL and OGR), or tools for the cartographic display of geographic data (e.g. PROJ4).
  • Mobile GIS are used for data collection in the field.

Tasks accomplished with GIS software

Typical tasks carried out with GIS are[1]:

  • viewing / exploring data
  • creating data (the dataset is extended)
  • editing data (the dataset is modified)
  • storing
  • conflation (integrating datasets from different sources)
  • transforming (into different coordinates systems, different representations, re-sampling - resulting in new representation/format of the same data)
  • querying (resulting in a selection from the dataset)
  • analysing (resulting in a new dataset, with new information obtained from the original dataset)
  • create maps

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 "GIS Software - A description in 1000 words", S. Steiniger and R. Weibel
  2. "Geomarketing in Practice", GfK GeoMarketing

Further reading

  • Longley, P.A., Goodchild, M.F., Maguire, D.J., and D.W. Rhind, Geographic Information Systems and Science. 2nd edition, John Wiley & Sons, 2005.
  • Sherman, G.E. Desktop GIS: mapping the planet with open source tools, The Pragmatic Programmers, LLC, 2008.