McGill university offers a variety of introduction classes specifically for GIS analysis (GEOG 201, NRS 430, etc.). All McGill students are entitled to an ESRI ArcGIS Online account, which will enable them to take many of the free ESRI GIS courses (to get an ESRI ArcGIS Online Account email If you need something more specific, the GIC team can meet with you to help you with the design of your project and/or your GIS analysis. Come see us in Burnside 525 or email us at

The same GIS analysis can usually be done using different paths. The methods chosen need to be applied with consideration to the data format, the extent, the resolution and the size of your dataset.  When facing a problem, keep these considerations in mind as they may give you clues to the cause of your problem. Working with GIS means to explore the spatial dimension of a particular question. Although, this might sound trivial, many unforeseen challenges may arise with this new dimension. Here is some selected information that might help you during the completion of your GIS projects.


  • Practical GIS analysis. 2002. David L . Verbyla.
    • This is the only practical guide to solving GIS problems independent of specific GIS software and hardware. If you want to learn how GIS works, and what kinds of problems you can solve with it, this book is for you.  --Editor summary
  • Key concepts and techniques in GIS. 2007. Jochen Albrecht.
    • A concise overview of the fundamental ideas that inform Geographic Information Science. It provides detailed descriptions of the concepts and techniques that anyone using GIS software must fully understand to analyze spatial data. --Editor summary



Throughout the development and unfolding of a GIS project, unforeseeable problems will occur. Thankfully, it is quite unlikely that you will be the first one to encounter your particular problem. There are many resources that can help you through these though times.

*The following resources are blogs, and may contain advertisements. The GIC does not take responsibility for this or any other content of these sites.

  • ArcGIS Support Services Blog
    • ESRI's very own support for all the problems you can encounter with ArcGIS 10.1. Answers are (most of the time) very useful and adequate.
  • GISusers
    • editorial and management is in the capable hands of veteran geospatiale industry analyst and editor, Glenn Letham. Glenn brings to GISuser more than 10 years experience as a respected online editor and writer having founded the first popular GIS/Geo daily electronic newsletter. --Author description.
  • GIS lounge
    • Geared toward introduction material and beginner help. Provides insight on data, cartography and feature some tutorials.



If you are new to GIS software, one way to go get a head start is to follow tutorials available online.  The GIC also periodically offers some short courses. Visit our upcoming events section for more information.

  • ESRI On-line training.
    • The McGill community has access to a suite of on-line workshops developed by ESRI that cover some of the most important aspects of the ArcGIS software. The list of the freely available training can be found here.


Introductory Manuals

Getting started with GIS can be difficult. However, as the field is evolving, better resources are available to help people understand  the concepts and theory behind GIS analysis. Here is a compilation of some interesting introductory manuals (available as e-books from the McGill Library).

  •  Encyclopedia of GIS. 2008. Shashi Shekhar; Hui Xiong
    • "Entries explain the key software, data sets, and processes used by geographers and computational scientists. Includes major overviews on topics, such as geoinformatics, spatial cognition, and location-based services. Shorter entries define specific terms and concepts, such as the global positioning system, digital elevation/terrain model, and remote sensing." --McGill Library Summary
  • Key Concepts and Techniques in GIS. 2007. Jochen Albrecht.
    • "A concise overview of the fundamental ideas that inform Geographic Information Science. It provides detailed descriptions of the concepts and techniques that anyone using GIS software must fully understand to analyze spatial data"--Publisher description.
  • GIS for Dummies. 2009. Michael N. DeMers.
    •  "[...] GIS For Dummies tells you all about mapping terminology and digital mapping, how to locate geographic features and analyze patterns such as streets and waterways, and how to generate travel directions, customer location lists, and much more with GIS. Whether you're in charge of creating GIS applications for your business or you simply love maps, you'll find GIS For Dummies is packed with information. "--Publisher's website.

To get introduced to remote sensing, we suggest checking out the following resources around the ENVI software. Why? Well, McGill classes and the GIC primarily use ENVI as our remote sensing software! ENVI has a great user interface and allows users to focus on basic concepts around remote sensing.



If you're looking for your own remotely sensed data, we recommend the now-renovated Earth Explorer data portal, maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

This is usually the final step of a GIS project. Your final map will most likely be one of the most important figures in your research project. A map can  easily represent your final result, or any important spatial features from your project . Do not underestimate the time needed to create a good and effective map at the end of your project. Also, remember that, in order to create an appealing map, a pinch of artistic work might be required.


A good map should be able to convey your message effectively without help from the text and should be designed with regards to the targeted public. In order to do so, simple rules can be followed based on cartography and visual hierarchy.


A map should always have these following elements present: a graphic scale bar, a legend, the data sources, the author name. Depending on the media in which it appears, a title also needs to be associated with the map which may or not be directly on the figure. Be careful to avoid doubling the title by having a title on the map as well as in the figure caption. A north arrow can also be added to the map. The general convention is that the North should be straight at the top of your map; in the case that you choose not to have the north at the top, you need to include the north arrow.

Visual hierarchy is also important to keep in mind as it provides an organization of the elements of your map based on their importance. A good way to design your map is to keep in mind the question that is answered in that figure. The defined question will dictate what elements need to be at the forefront of the map in terms of size, colour scheme and position.

The colour and pictogram associated with the different elements should reflect the meaning they  have in your particular context. For example, if the topic of your map is deforestation, deforested area should be in a bold color such as red or in a appropriate pictogram such as a log rather than a standing tree.


Globaia, a global education organization, created a series of map illustrating the impact of humans on the planet. This map display different ways humans impact the planet. The legend tells us that the white lines are representing air traffic, the green are roads and the red dots are urban areas. Some elements are missing such as a scale bar and a North arrow; however considering that this is a global map, the reader is not lost in his interpretation of the maps. One could question the choice of the green colour for roads, as green is usually associated with "good", but the author's position is not clear on this topic. An important element that is missing from the map is the data source.


This is a map of the metro of the city of Montreal. Its goal is to inform the reader of the sequence and relative position of metros stations, more so than their actual positions. The legend is minimal and some of the pictograms used are not represented in it as they refer to symbols commonly used. The authors of this map chose to include a north arrow of the map although it is straight up. Including the north arrow on a minimal map such as this one can seem as a waste of space; however, Montrealers usually call north the direction that is actually more a North East direction, so that the river flows in a West-East directions. The author of the map decided to include the North arrow because of his knowledge of his audience.


Here are some interesting resources if you need more help with you maps.


  • GIS cartography
    • Maps, either printed or digital, can create effective communication with bosses, clients, other scientists, and the public. However, entry level GISers often find that map design was given short shrift in their pre-professional life. It is time for the GIS field, which is maturing in other ways, to improve its skills in this area. Based on the author’s more than ten years of research and practice in map design, GIS Cartography: A Guide to Effective Map Design provides the tools to create truly sophisticated maps. --Abstract
  • How to lie with a map (Hard copy available at the McGill Library)
    • Originally published to wide acclaim, this lively, cleverly illustrated essay on the use and abuse of maps teaches us how to evaluate maps critically and promotes a healthy skepticism about these easy-to-manipulate models of reality. Monmonier shows that, despite their immense value, maps lie. In fact, they must. --Book description



  • Understanding Visual Hierarchy in Web design, Webdesigntut+
    • A very good article about visual hierarchy and its importance in graphic communication  Although this is geared towards web design, the theory and concepts of visual hierarchy are well described and illustrated.


Data visualization is the art of turning a dataset into something visual, with an emphasis on the visuals being aesthetic and communicative. The following resources give you a broad overview of what is possible with data visualization - especially geographic visualization. Note that some of these sites encourage you to purchase paid services - there is plenty to be learned for free!

The GIC offers several workshops throughout the year that are a gentle introduction to python/R as well as beginner/intermediate-level tutorials on data science. If you'd like to pursue some independent learning, we suggest the following pathway:

  1. Fundamentals: Datacamp & Coursera (careful of costly classes)
  2. University-level courses: EduX (free, although quality may vary)
  3. Challenge yourself: Kaggle (advanced data science and machine learning)


If you are looking for structured manuals, the following books/courses will rapidly bring you up to speed on all things R!

  1. Data Visualization in R
  2. R for Data Science (DS)
  3. Geocomputation in R
  4. Statistics with R

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