Maps and GIS

What is GIS?

GIS stands for Geographic Information Systems, which is a computer system used to store, display, and analyze spatial information.  More formally, we can define GIS as “a system of hardware, software and procedures designed to support the capture, management, manipulation, analysis, modeling, and display of spatially referenced data for solving complex planning and management problems” (Rhind 1989).  Broadly speaking, GIS is used to answer the basic questions, often called the 3 Ws of Geography: What is where?  And why do I care?

GIS can help us answer basic and not-so-basic questions about the world around us.   GIS is many things, but at its core it is just a relational database with a spatial component.  This permits users to load vast amounts of information, from a variety of sources, and to create and reveal relationships between the datasets.  And because these are displayed on a map, GIS permits users to see trends and relationships from different sources that often would not be as apparent in a tabular format.  We can use these data to solve spatial problems and make decisions about real-world features.

GIS is often is a catalyst for interdisciplinary work, since it bridges the gaps between disciplines through its spatial focus.  GIS plays a role in many disciplines, from urban planning to epidemiology.  For more information, check out our Library Guide for GIS & Geographic Information Science.

How is GIS used at St Olaf?

GIS is used for research in the sciences and increasingly in St Olaf’s brand-new Digital Humanities on the Hill Initiative.  A better question might be, what can’t you do with GIS?  Any problem with a spatial component can potentially be worked on using GIS.  Common GIS uses include (but certainly not limited to):

  • Managing parcel and tax information.
  • Keeping track of utility infrastructure.
  • Keeping track of transportation infrastructure.
  • Urban planning.
  • Apportioning election boundaries.
  • Detecting land use change.
  • Modeling potential environmental outcomes.
  • Predicting environmental incidents: flooding, forest fires.
  • Identifying the best location to place new construction.
  • Geodemographics: who lives where and how many are there.
  • Mapping disease incidences.

IT supports almost any conceivable academic use of GIS.

Who can help me get started with GIS or assist with a GIS problem?

Reach out to the DiSCO at

Where can I get access to GIS software on campus?

Currently, the best place to access GIS software is RNS400, the GIS Laboratory.  If the door is locked, or to schedule the room, please contact Paul Jackson (jackson) x3404. If there is a need for the software in other departmental or public labs, contact the DiSCO.  We’re very willing to support ArcGIS where needed.

Who should I call to install or upgrade ArcGIS on my computer?

St Olaf College maintains a site license for ArcGIS Advanced, and migrates to new versions of ArcGIS in a timely manner.  Our licenses are centrally managed by the IT department, so anyone on campus connected to our network can use ArcGIS software on college-owned hardware.

  • For college-owned desktops and laptops, contact the IT Helpdesk ( x3830.
  • For machines in the GIS Laboratory in RNS400, contact the DiSCO (disco)
  • For classroom machines: contact Dana Thompson, Presentation Technology Manager (thompsd) x 3067
  • For departmental labs, contact the IT Helpdesk ( x3830.
  • For personal desktops and laptops, contact the DiSCO.  Please note that installation of College-licensed software is not normally permitted and must have a clear educational or research use directly tied to the mission of the College.

What GIS software is available at St Olaf?

Currently St Olaf supports ArcGIS Desktop software, including ArcGIS Advanced and ArcGIS Pro, in addition to ArcGIS Online and ESRI Story Maps, as well as  Google My Maps.

Where can I get geospatial data or learn more about GIS?

Check out the LibraryGuide for GIS page on spatial data sources.

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