What is GIS?

GIS stands for Geographic Informations Systems. It is a tool that combines the power of maps, computers, drawing tools, and databases into one interactive system that people use to study and analyze geographical patterns and events.

The key to understanding GIS is in the very first letter - the G, for Geographic. Geography is a study that tries to understand the world through human and physical features, and understanding the relationship of place and location. Geography is not just the study of where things are and how they got there, but also of the connection between people, other living beings, places, and the environments that they occupy.

Almost everything in the real world around you has spatial components - geographically-based information about its location, its physical shape, and its relationship to other locations. GIS is a tool that allows you to use spatial information to answer questions about places and things. Let's look at an example.

Pictured below is an aerial photograph of Beaver Stadium, the home of the Penn State football team. There's a lot of spatial information in this picture, but its only useful if it helps answer a question. Click on any of the five questions to the left of the picture, and you'll bring up the spatial features of Beaver Stadium that relate to that question. Try it out, and you may be surprised at how many of these spatial features you'd thought of already by just looking at the picture.