Map Tips, Tricks, and Resources for the Small Business Owner

Have you checked out your library's geographic information system (GIS) resources?

Find GIS-based resources at the library to support your small business needs.

Geographic information system (or systems) (GIS) is a system used to combine geographic data with attribute data to create maps and conduct spatial analysis. GIS can also identify historic sensitivities on a landscape, select optimal locations to establish new businesses, manage or monitor environmental resources, build emergency response plans, and plan infrastructure. Some libraries have used GIS to better inform collection development decisions or improve upon preexisting collection layouts in a building.

GIS can be used in a number of private sector industries, like agriculture, construction, engineering, environmental sciences, emergency services, health services, historic preservation, nonprofit work, retail, and social services, just to name a few!


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Low- or No-Cost GIS Software and Tools

One of the earliest known GIS-based maps was created by hand in 1694 by Filippo Arrieta. Arrieta created a map of Bari, Italy, that shows the quarantine boundaries imposed by the military in an effort to prevent the spread of the plague to neighboring communities.* Today, there are a number of digital tools, software programs, and resources available for use. Many of these resources are open source (i.e., publicly accessible) or free.

  1. Google Earth Pro. (Free, subject to change) Business owners can use this program to measure distances and areas on a map, conduct spatial analysis, and visualize or manage assets. This program can also be used to monitor changes in the landscape and is a great option for businesses involved with real estate or tourism.
  2. GRASS GIS. (Open source) This program supports both vector and raster data processing and allows users to gather geostatistics and conduct terrain analysis. The program is best known for its spatial modeling capabilities. Although this is for the more advanced GIS user, GRASS GIS has an active user community, and extensive documentation is available. The program is often used in academic research, environmental sciences, urban planning, and can be used in any other industry where spatial data analysis and modeling are required.
  3. Mapbox. (Starts at $50) Developers can use Mapbox to build interactive, customizable, vector-based maps in web applications. The program offers terrain and 3D visualization. Businesses in technology, transportation, logistics, and real estate might be interested in using this program.
  4. MapInfo Pro. (Free trial, starts at $970) This is another program that allows users to analyze data and build customized maps. MapInfo Pro allows for database integration and supports a variety of data formats, allowing for easy import and export capabilities.
  5. Maptitude. ($695 for the first year) This program allows users to create multilayered maps. Users will discover a range of spatial analysis capabilities, including proximity and statistical analysis (among others). Advanced tools are also available. Maptitude is often used for business intelligence purposes. Users working in the transportation industry would find this program useful because it offers tools for route optimization, network analysis, and navigation. Maptitiude includes datasets that would allow a user to consider socioeconomic data alongside spatial information.
  6. Quantum GIS (QGIS). (Open source) Also known as “Q,” Quantum GIS has many of the same capabilities as the previously mentioned GRASS GIS. QGIS abides by open standards, so it is interoperable with other GIS software and data. The program is highly customizable. Because of its flexibility, this is a popular program with a global reach. QGIS is widely used in environmental sciences, natural resource management, engineering, etc.
  7. Scribble Maps. (Free version available) Users have the ability to draw and annotate directly onto maps of their choosing or maps they create within the program. Users can import and export data with Scribble Maps. This is a useful tool for anyone needing to create a map for presentation or marketing purposes.


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Several of the programs listed above are included in G2’s top twenty-five GIS programs available for small businesses—be sure to check out the complete list here. If you’re interested in a heavier GIS program, you might be interested in one of Esri’s many GIS software options like ArcGIS OnlineArcGIS Desktop, or Indoor GIS.

Open Data

  1. ArcGIS Hub. This is a hub of data maintained by Esri. This hub includes over 390,000 open datasets available to the public.
  2. United States Geological Survey (USGS) Historical Topographic Maps. This is Esri’s historical topographic map viewer, allowing you to download historical USGS topographic maps.
  3. USGS GIS Data Download. This houses topographic data, including digital elevation maps (DEMs), contours, and lidar data.
  4. Web Soil Survey (WSS). This keeps data provided by the National Cooperative Soil Survey, operated by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
  5. Purdue University’s GIS Data Guide. This includes a comprehensive list of state-specific data in the United States.


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More GIS Resources at the Library

Training workshops help introduce library patrons to different GIS software programs and spatial analysis strategies. These workshops are often designed for beginner-level analysis, but sometimes, more advanced workshops could be offered, too. Participants might be introduced to any of the open-source or paid software programs previously mentioned (i.e., ArcGIS Online, ArcMap, Google Earth Pro, GRASS GIS, MapBox, QGIS, etc.). Participants will oftentimes learn the basics, like how to establish a map’s coordinate system and create raster and/or vector datasets. Cornell University offers GIS-related workshops that are open to the public. Princeton University hosts workshops each semester for their faculty and students. Tulane University offers several online tutorials to new GIS users in their GIS Library Guide or LibGuide.

Some libraries have both physical and digital map collections available for public use. Digital maps are maps that have been digitized and are available for use as basemaps. Physical maps can be digitally scanned and brought into a GIS program to achieve the same purpose using a method known as “georeferencing.” The Library of Congress has an extensive digital map collection freely available online.

Sometimes, libraries will provide special GIS workstations with GIS software that has been installed on the local drive. These workstations are available for library patron use. A library user would be able to use this workstation to create their own maps or to conduct their own spatial analysis on datasets. 

Keep an eye out for GIS-themed exhibits and events at your local library or in your community. These events offer a great way to learn about the current tools and trends in the GIS community. GIS Lounge is an online community that offers learning and networking opportunities throughout the year for a wide range of GIS users.

You will likely encounter unfamiliar terminology as you dig deeper into the world of GIS. Not to worry, Esri’s GIS dictionary can be used in a pinch to look up any terms that might sound confusing to you. 

As always, don’t forget that your librarian will be happy to direct you to any GIS resources you may need. If you are struggling to find maps or open data, check with your librarian for guidance. If you think you could use a special workstation or would like to see a few training workshops at your library, ask a librarian!

*Author’s Note: Author Tom Koch (2011) offers a review of the history of GIS-based disease mapping in his book Disease Maps: Epidemics on the Ground.



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